By Liz Loewy, EverSafe General Counsel
People are living longer. Advances in medicine and health care have contributed to the growing aging demographic. And the impact that increasing life expectancy will have on family dynamics and family decision-making is undeniable. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, an American man living until the age of 65 has an average life expectancy of 83, and for women, it’s 85. But this news is bittersweet. What’s the bitter part? According to the CDC, over five million Americans are now living with Alzheimer’s disease, with symptoms usually appearing after age 60 and increasing with age.
Adult children are often the first to know when issues related to their parents’ advanced age begin to surface. The problems may be primarily physical. Mom may be unsteady on her feet while living in a residence that has steep stairs or other unsafe conditions. Dad may still be driving, despite his failing eyesight and occasional fender benders. And of course problems with memory, both with respect to everyday family events or business and financial transactions, can be a real concern.
Family members may feel conflicted about what to do when older loved ones begin to exhibit signs that they’re having trouble. These are the folks who raised us, and attempting to initiate a conversation about advanced planning about issues like caregiving and incapacity can feel counter-intuitive and downright awkward. Well-meaning adult children worry that voicing their concerns will be misinterpreted, or viewed as disrespectful or condescending. Others who have already attempted to discuss important issues with their parents may have had their efforts culminate in heated disagreement, or even estrangement. There are good reasons to try again.
Having a conversation about important issues while your parents are physically and mentally healthy, can avoid misunderstandings and heartache later. The benefits of developing a proactive plan far outweigh the possible discomfort of sitting down around the kitchen table to discuss potential problems related to aging. In fact, with a thoughtful and sensitive approach (plus a dash of humor, if it suits your family), you can support your older loved ones’ ability to maintain and extend their independence.
Starting the Conversation
Before initiating ‘the conversation,’ it’s a good idea to reflect upon who should participate as well as the topics that might be addressed. Consider involving all siblings to avoid problems later. Naturally, the dynamics of the conversation will differ from family to family. The discussion can occur in stages, and, at some point, it may be advantageous to involve your parents’ attorney or power of attorney, their doctor(s), or other professionals (e.g., accountant, financial advisor, broker) - with their permission, of course. Some families may decide to use a mediator. Whatever your strategy, be mindful that your parents may already have a plan in place. It’s their decision whether or not to share the details with you.
Potential Discussion Topics
Having that important conversation with loved ones on issues related to aging may be the most important step you can take to ease older family members through challenging times in later life. Taking steps to plan that discussion so that the conversation is thorough but respectful of the participants’ feelings can strengthen family relationships in unforeseen and wonderful ways.
Liz Loewy is General Counsel at EverSafe, a technology company focused on the prevention of financial exploitation and identity theft in later life. Ms. Loewy was formerly the founding Chief of the Elder Abuse Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she served as trial counsel in the case involving the late Brooke Astor.
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