Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Communicating and planning for how you want to live

Every person I talk with about aging tells me they want to continue to make their own decisions about where and how they want to live as they get older. Yet, when I ask if they have taken steps to ensure they will have the life they want as they age, very few have done much—if any—planning. I believe that planning for our later years is extremely important, as it prevents us from being reactive in the face of changes that can be significant. Simply put, proactivity creates a much greater likelihood that we will get what we want as we age. An effective way to plan for our later years involves a three-part process: Contemplation, engaging thought partners, and communicating our needs and wants to people important to us.

Contemplation:  The first part of this process requires some soul-searching about what is important to us as we get older. I like to think of these as essential conversations we have with ourselves. Most of us have a hard time imagining our lives as being different than they are now. Despite that, we know that as we age there are often changes in our health or mobility. Frequently, there are also changes in our relationships. For example, a spouse may have health challenges or a close friend may move away. One way to approach thinking about our future is to ask ourselves this question: “If there were a change in my health or mobility, or the health or mobility of someone I love, what might I do differently?”

Answering this question leads to exploring options. Consider where you would want to live and how you could best continue to have excellent quality of life if you developed a notable health challenge. Do you think you might want to stay in your own home? Who would manage the day to day needs of your home and your life if you weren’t able to? How about the household repairs? Begin to assess what options may help with these matters as you age so you have a plan of action.

Engaging Thought Partners: “Thought partners” are the people who are best able to listen to us, offer thoughts, ideas and perhaps a different perspective about a situation—usually without having a significant stake in our decision. Using this definition, you can think about who is most suited to help you sort through the many ideas you may have as you determine what you want in the future stages of your life. Perhaps you will talk to your adult children, or maybe a sibling, a good friend, or a trusted professional. Likely you will need to chat with several people along the way, and each may offer different ideas that help you clarify how you want to live and what is needed to attain your vision.

Communicating Needs and Wants: The final step in this planning process is communicating with the people closest to us what we want and need as we age. These essential conversations are an imperative part of proactively preparing for our future. More than any other time in our adult life, when we are older we may need others to help us implement our desired plans. The sooner we talk with those we love about our ideas, the more likely they are to be supportive when we need them in the future. These conversations are rarely one-way information sharing sessions. Instead, our loved ones will also likely have thoughts to share. Remember, everyone needs time to process, some people more time than others. That’s why these essential conversations are often an evolving dialogue rather than a “one and done” conversation.  When people ask me whom they should talk with about plans for their later years, I suggest talking to everyone who might be part of helping implement those plans, as well as everyone who might be a disruptor at the time you need them. Having conversations now can diffuse disruption later!

It truly is possible to continue to live a fulfilling life as we age—and the best way to ensure you do is to plan for it now!

About Dr. Amy D’Aprix

Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.