Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Moving beyond assumptions

In the over 30 years I have worked with and on behalf of older adults and their families, countless times I have witnessed families operating on assumptions when it comes to helping plan for their aging parent’s care or housing. Some of these assumptions include: 
I’m sure (or I know) that…

My mother will want to move in with me now that my dad has passed.
My dad always said he wanted to stay in his own home, no matter what happened.
My parents would never want to live in a retirement residence. They are too private to live with other people around. 
My parents love the home they raised my brothers and me in and want to stay there. 
If they need care, I’m sure my parents want the family to provide all of it. 

Why we make assumptions

It can be difficult to recognize when we are operating on assumptions we haven’t really checked out. After all, one of the wonderful aspects of a life-long relationship with our parents is that we have a depth of experience and knowledge about them. We have journeyed through so much of life together that we may even feel like we can anticipate their thoughts and reactions to various situations, and thus we start making assumptions. 

The importance of Essential Conversations

I now spend much of my professional life either teaching and encouraging people to have what I named “Essential Conversations” or guiding them through these conversations. Essential Conversations are talking to the most important people about the most important things in our lives, and they are the antidote to the assumptions that often interfere with good planning for later years. I’m committed to helping people have these conversations because I know that the outcome will likely be plans for aging that better meet everyone’s needs. 

Yet, having Essential Conversations are a bit different from the approach many of us take when talking with our parents. Essential Conversations with our parents require us to set aside our assumptions and listen to them with “new ears,” almost as if we were meeting them for the first time. When we strip away the filters that come from our shared history, we may be surprised what we learn about our parents. 

For example, many people find their parent—who has always insisted they wanted to stay in the home they have been in for decades—is now is very open to considering a retirement residence. Often what someone thinks when they anticipate what life might be like once a spouse dies or when they reach a new life stage is quite different when those circumstances occur in their life. It’s important to remember their perspective may shift when they have a lived experience versus an anticipated experience. It’s also important to remember that people continue to grow and change throughout their life, and it’s important that we give our parents the space to do that, too, and not hold them to what they thought previously. 

How to approach an Essential Conversation

How do you approach your parents about housing or care conversations? One of the best places to start is to tell them that you want to support their independence and quality of life as they age, and you want to be able to have conversations about how to best do that. Then ask them about what they envision as they age. If you believe they are not being realistic, it’s best to fully listen and hear their desires before sharing your viewpoints. You may even decide to just listen and acknowledge their needs and desires in the first conversation. Then you could come back and discuss with them your viewpoints and concerns; always remembering that it is their life and they have a right to make their own choices. 

You may also realize that your parent needs to better understand available options before they can decide what is best for them. Perhaps you plan to visit retirement residences together as well as consider any other living arrangements they are interested in exploring. 

I believe one of the greatest human needs is to feel heard and understood—not necessarily agreed with, but heard and understood. The only way to truly hear and understand someone is to rise above our assumptions and listen with new ears. When we do this, it is more likely that the plans that emerge from those Essential Conversations will be ones that everyone feels good about.