Many adults prepare for their senior years by putting aside money in 401(k) accounts or various retirement plans. They may also diet and exercise regularly and, with their physician’s help, keep a watchful eye on their health. They may do all of these things and feel confident about their futures, but, occasionally, they are haunted by a question: Who will take care of me, if I need it?
It’s easy to push this question aside when dealing with life’s day-to-day stresses, like work or the demands of raising kids. Possibly, the thought doesn’t occur to some people until they are called upon to care for an aging loved one or visit them in a nursing home. The question may not arise until they are facing a personal health issue.
The prospect of having to rely on others for care can be frightening, especially to someone who has been active most of their life. Fortunately, there are two strategies available to lessen this anxiety: preparation and conversation. The former can be largely accomplished through paperwork. The latter requires an investment in offspring.
Matthew Reed, senior vice president of communications and administration for Direction Home, Akron Canton Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities, says that preparing necessary items such as writing a living will, settling power-of-attorney questions, and making end-of-life arrangements are initial steps that people can take to prepare for their senior years. However, arranging for their personal long-term care may be more difficult than preparing legal documents given the emotions involved.
Reed adds another complicating factor is that people are living longer and, in some cases, with chronic conditions that can impair their ability to live independently.
While recognizing that individual situations may vary, he suggests parents first discuss their wishes with a professional, such as an attorney, before attempting to talk about such issues with their children. He also cautions that the issue should be broached at an appropriate time given the range of emotions and ages of those involved.
“I don’t know many people that want to rely on their children for their care, although that is traditionally the way that we get our care,” Reed says. “I just had a daughter a couple of years ago and I’m already talking with my wife about, ‘Let’s raise her so that she knows what our wishes are and can help us.’”
Reed suggests that parents adopt a proactive approach to discussing the topic with their offspring rather than waiting for them to ask. It’s a conversation that might best be delayed until children are adults themselves.
Gina Laterza, an Akron-based licensed professional clinical counselor, says that while parents should be the ones to initiate the discussion, it should be at a point in a child’s maturity level when they are capable of understanding another person’s needs.
She explains that families that are open, rather than emotionally closed, may have an easier time discussing such a potentially difficult topic as long-term care for a parent. Communication regarding parental wishes should be an ongoing dialogue and not a one-time occurrence as personal and family circumstances may change. Even with openness and understanding among family members, the topic can be problematic for parent and child.
Citing her own family situation, Laterza says that while her mother has
set aside money when planning for her personal long-term care, someone in early middle age — such as herself — is just starting to comprehend their parent’s needs and wants beyond a desire to remain as independent for as long as possible.
While an age-appropriate dialogue with children is important, actions can influence a child regardless of their age.
Laterza explains the impact of the family “life cycle of learning” and role modeling should not be overlooked. Many behavior patterns are learned from parent to child and can be handed down over generations. Positive traits such as compassion can be instilled in children at an early age. Children observe how their parents treat their grandparents and those patterns can repeat in the future.
Reed adds that parents tell their children what’s important to them by the way they act, and that children are always watching. “If you want kids that are going to take care of you when you’re older, you showing them how to do that with your own parents is probably a good first step.”
Even with all of the preparation and all of the conversation of those involved, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to raising the subject of parental long-term care.
Along with differing ages and personalities, other factors such as cultural values may influence how such conversations unfold, Laterza says.
Reed explains that personal situations also can change drastically due to circumstances beyond the control of individuals in areas such as health care, Medicare, and nursing home options.
“Aging really is about preparing for the future,” he says “I don’t think that we have that sort of crystal ball that can help predict the future.”