How to Talk to Your Parents About Their Health
August 1, 2023
Have you noticed subtle changes in your parents’ health?
- Does your parent have less energy than before?
- Are there more and more doctor visits they seem to be busy with?
- Does your parent have a new diagnosis of dementia?
Whatever it is you’re seeing, you might be thinking:
- What will the future hold for my parent’s health?
- What kind of care might they want?
- What kind of care might they need?
- What is my role in all of this?
These are all important questions!
You’ll need to start talking to your parents to figure out the answers. And this can be challenging even in the best of relationships!
Here are 7 steps to make this conversation easier and less stressful. Importantly, this may not be a one-and-done conversation but the start of ongoing discussions. So let’s go!
1. Write down your questions and goals.
You probably have lots of things running through your mind. Take a moment to organize your thoughts. What questions do you have for your parents? What do you need to know in terms of their wishes and their health?
- I want to know where they want to be as they age
- I want to know what kind of medical care they’d want at the end of life
- I want to know how they see my role in their healthcare. Am I the healthcare proxy?
2. What’s your ‘why’s?
Why do you want to talk about these often uncomfortable topics? Perhaps your reason comes from a place of compassion and concern or worry and fear; whatever your reason, it’s valid. Recognizing your why is motivation to keep moving forward.
3. Tell your parents you want to talk.
Reach out to your parents and let them know you’d like to find a time to talk about their health and the future. Letting them know your ‘why’ may also affirm the importance of this conversation for them and you.
Try: “I’d like to talk with you about how you’re doing and make sure we chat about the future of your health too. I care about you a lot and worry about making sure I can help take care of you. Can we talk about things?”
Try: “You’ve mentioned how hard it is to see some of your friends in and out of this hospital, especially what happened with XX. It’s important to me to hear how you’re thinking about your health and what kind of care you’d want if we ever get into situations like that. Can we find time to talk about it?”
Try: “I know it’s not a fun conversation by any means, but I’ve been thinking a lot about you and the future, and I think it’s important that we talk about your health and your wishes so we’re all on the same page.”
4. Put it on the calendar.
This may seem obvious, but setting up an actual time and place (and putting it on the calendar) is an essential next step to ensure the conversation gets going.
5. Start the Conversation.
Start the conversation by acknowledging how hard and emotional it is to talk about this stuff.
Then set some sort of agenda.
Try: “Talking about these things feels really hard. I worry about upsetting you or making it seem I’m not hopeful about the future. PAUSE. Even though it’s hard, I’m glad we’re doing it. I hope to talk about what’s important to you.”
Try: “I don’t like to think about your health changing, and I also think that if we talk about it, we might both have some peace of mind. I hope to hear how things are going for you and how you think about the future.”
Try: “I know this is hard for you to talk about with me. Thank you for agreeing to sit down today. I want you to know how much I care about you and make sure I can advocate for your wishes no matter what happens down the road.”
6. Give Space.
Sometimes just opening the conversation allows space for your parents to share how they’re feeling and what they’ve been thinking about too. Give them space to share what’s been on their mind and try not to interrupt (we know that can be hard!)
7. Ask questions.
Here’s a list of questions that might be helpful when trying to understand what’s going on with your parents’ health, how they’re making their decisions, and what’s important to them.
Of note: These questions can feel really hard to ask. Some of them might not be right for a first conversation. Some of them might need to come with a third party present, like someone from their healthcare team or an EpioneMD coach. You don’t need to get all the answers, especially in one conversation. If it doesn’t feel right, skip it for now.
- What’s the latest you’ve heard from the doctors about everything?
- What do good days look like for you these days?
- What would be important to you if you did get sicker? What if time were short?
- Where do you envision yourself living as you get older? Who is there with you?
- Who do you want to help you make these medical decisions if you can’t or if it’s too overwhelming?
- What kind of care would you want if time were short?/How would you want things to look?
- Is there a way of living that you feel wouldn’t be acceptable to you or when you might say, ‘I don’t want more time in this way’?
- Is there anything else you want me to know?
- How can I support you?
- Do you have any advanced directives or medical documents like a MOLST or a Health Care Proxy Form that you want to share with me?
These conversations are complicated, emotional, and uncomfortable, but here’s a starting point. Sometimes you may just need the help of a third party.
So if the conversation keeps hitting a wall, or it’s just too uncomfortable to initiate on your own, a resource like EpioneMD can help facilitate a conversation. Sign up for a FREE discovery call to learn how they can help.
By Caitlin Baran, MD, a palliative care doctor and co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer at EpioneMD, which provides virtual advance care planning and serious illness coaching to individuals and telepalliative care consultation to healthcare organizations.