SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 29, 2012

Column: The gift of a family conversation

MaryAnn Holak
The Salem News

---- — Families, no matter what shape, size or relation, often gather together in the holiday season to share gifts, customs and traditions unique to their homes. In some families, chaos abounds with the unwrapping of gifts and the noise of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. In others, the mood is more peaceful or even somber as loved ones who have passed on are remembered and missed. In our perfectly imperfect families, wouldn’t it be nice if there were no conflict, no depression, no drunken relatives and no stress about money or other matters that always seems to crop up over the holidays? Often though, the stressors and the emotions of this time of year get the best of us.

Most families can actually predict what topics of conversation will trigger the “fight-or-flight” response in their loved ones. Some will fight, argue and get angry and some will flee into withdrawal, one too many drinks or attempts to diffuse the situation with humor or cajoling. In the older adult population, the fight-or-flight response is often set off when a family member raises the question with their aging parent about moving to assisted living, giving up the car keys or some other perceived threat to their independence. There is no doubt these conversations are difficult for both the initiator and the receiver; it’s understandable when these delicate conversations turn into a family argument.

As the director of the Beverly Council on Aging and Senior Community Center, I am an advocate of finding a way to have “the talk” with our older parents, relatives or neighbors. In the past year, we have identified many vulnerable, frail elders in our community living in substandard situations. Often they are choosing to live in this manner because they have not made a plan, don’t have the resources, have some memory loss or simply no longer have the vigor to make and adapt to change. Some even view their adult children as the foe and remain steadfast in their unwillingness to alter their situation. In many cases through active communication and support, a solution can be found that is best for the family and the elder. Sharing your concerns with your loved one is often the catalyst for moving forward.

In researching this article, I discovered some terrific resources for family members who know in their heart of hearts that it is time to have the conversation with their aging parents. Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman started the Conversation Project in 2010 with a goal of making it easier to initiate conversations about tough end-of-life decisions. You can download a 12-page “Conversation Starter” kit at theconversationproject.org. Her website states that 60 percent of people think that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is “extremely important,” yet 56 percent of people also reported that they have not communicated their end-of-life wishes. There seems to be a disconnect that can only be remedied by open dialogue with our loved ones. Another resource, Having the Conversation: A Heart to Heart with Aging Parents (havingthe-conversation.com), was developed by Covenant Retirement Communities. They indicate that the five most important considerations for aging seniors are: “security, freedom, peace of mind, friends and choices.” Their website offers a video as well as checklists and articles to help you through the conversation. The toll-free 1-800-AGE-INFO line or website, www.800ageinfo.com, is designed specifically for Massachusetts elders and their families. Every community on the North Shore also has a Council on Aging that can be called on for resources and assistance.

Perhaps the best advice is to be prepared. Before initiating “the talk,” practice some relaxed conversation starters, i.e. “How is your friend Bob doing now that he has moved to a senior housing development?” “You mentioned that you were concerned about finding someone to remove the snow from the walkways this winter. Did you know that snow removal is free for those living in senior housing? Now Bob can enjoy the snow without having to shovel.” “How about you dad, would you ever consider moving into senior housing?” See if this line of conversation gives you a hint or some wiggle room to discuss your concerns for your loved one’s safety and well being. You might also inquire about how many times each week your loved one sees or talks with friends and neighbors. Social isolation is a real concern for older adults, especially those living alone. If you are in town for the holidays, you might take your parent on a visit to the local senior center where you both can explore the opportunities and resources available.

If you take the time to view the websites above, you will find that several consider the ability to have “the conversation” as a gift. Giving the gift of a conversation with the older adults in your life might just be the best present you give and receive this holiday season.

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MaryAnn Holak is the executive director of the Beverly Council on Aging and Senior Community Center. For information or assistance you may reach her at mholak@beverlyma.gov or 978-921-6017.