Health & Well-Being

How to Have Hard Conversations with Aging Parents

Observing Mom and Dad as they grow older is a poignant experience. When you notice that they are walking slower or becoming more forgetful, it stirs awareness that family life will never be the same again. One day, they may need our help, and these subtle physical and mental changes signal the need to start talking with them about their future well-being.

 When is the best time to initiate these tough conversations? Right now— when your parents can make their own decisions and crises aren’t raining down on everyone. Families can avoid many “emergencies” by planning before they occur. Here are some tips to help you navigate the hard-to-talk-about topics.

Let the Experts Do the Talking

 We are all aging together. What applies to our parents applies to us adult children simultaneously. Keeping this in mind, an effective conversation door-opener is to invite parents to educational lectures on various aging-related subjects. 

I recently lectured on the CC Young Senior Living Community campus at their life enrichment center. I spoke about financing a longer life, deciding where to live, and securing legal documents. Parents tend to be more open-minded when experts bring up sensitive topics that adult children often find challenging.  

Set the Stage for Cooperation  

The secret to effective caregiving is trust. When parents feel that their adult children are trustworthy, they tend to be more receptive. 

If you’re apprehensive about starting conversations with your parents, that’s normal. As you adjust your communication approach to fit the current situation, your objective should always be the same: keep your elders involved in their own decision-making. 

Here are a few ways to open the dialogue: 

Seize the moment 

Asking for help is not easy. It takes work, and many people drop hints instead. 

Let’s say that Mom is worried about running out of money, so she might declare, “My neighbor is paying close to $200 a month for groceries!” Any conversations they initiate—especially regarding the subject of money—are an opening for you to start asking questions: “Mom, how would you manage the situation if you were in her shoes? The cost of groceries puts me on a tight budget, too. How do you handle it?”

Plant the seed

Use a newspaper article or online post to jump-start a conversation. Long-term care insurance, for example, is a newsworthy topic. 

Show the article to your parent and say, “I thought you might find this article interesting. I didn’t realize that Medicare doesn’t cover in-home services. What are your thoughts about paying for long-term care?” 

Ask for advice

Soliciting advice from parents offers redeeming exchanges. This approach also helps parents feel needed and appreciated for their years of experience. You can say, “I’m just beginning to think about my retirement, and it looks like you’re doing well. Do you have any tips for me?” 

When the timing isn’t right, you know it

Deciding when and where to have conversations is essential. Think about past family gatherings when a conversation you initiated went haywire. Mom was distracted. Grandpa said he was too tired to talk. Your brother changed the subject. Immediately, you’re defensive and raging.

Arrange the ideal place to talk

Should this conversation take place in person rather than over the phone? In my experience, you will want to see if your parent seems nervous or uncomfortable (frowning, tapping a foot, or looking at the clock) or relaxed (smiling and looking you in the eye). 

If you talk face-to-face, consider where to speak before setting the date. Pick a quiet place where everyone can hear each other and at a location without distractions. A restaurant setting has limitations. Uninterrupted conversations are practically impossible, and parents can quickly feel like they are in the hot seat.

Setting aside time to talk doesn’t mean that you must hold a formal meeting. Sometimes, the best discussions occur while you drive together in the car or while puttering around the kitchen.

Take yourself out of the loop

Are you the best person for the job? Your parent may want to refrain from talking with you about specific subjects despite your good intentions. Perhaps your sister gets along with Mom better than you and should approach the subject and discuss the results later.

Certain people outside the family circle (such as authority figures) may also be helpful, like their doctor or clergy member. Tell them your concerns and ask them to be the messenger rather than you.

Growing older is not for the faint of heart. Observation, sensitivity, and compassion can go a long way to understanding the complexities of traveling this difficult road as a loving family.


Joy Loverde

Joy Loverde is a keynote speaker, consultant, and author of the best-selling books, “The Complete Eldercare Planner, 4th Edition,” and “Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?” She has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Money, The New York Times, and Psychology Today, among many others. Interviews include the Today show, Good Morning America, and NPR. Critics hail her work as “illuminating, eye-opening, and required reading for everyone over 40.” Visit her website at

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