Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Talking with aging parents over Thanksgiving

Many of us will be spending Thanksgiving with our parents and siblings—either in person or virtually due to COVID-19. Either way, this is likely to be a very different holiday than most of us have experienced in the past. In addition to new challenges regarding gathering safely, many of us may feel worried about how our parents are faring and see how the pandemic has taken a toll on them. That may add to concerns about the next few months, with some provinces moving back into a modified shut-down, and the impact of the second wave this fall and winter.

As challenging and frustrating this as Thanksgiving may prove to be, it also provides us with the opportunity to have Essential Conversations with our parents and siblings that may have been more difficult to bring up in past years. Discussions about planning for the unexpected and having both practical and emotional support in place now seem more relevant then ever in light of the last few months.

Below are some ideas for discussion, followed by some suggestions for how to have those conversations.

Essential Conversations to have with your parents:

  • One of the most important things you can discuss with your parents is making sure they have enough practical support if they have a health scare or emergency during the second wave of the pandemic. Many people do not want to plan for possible issues such as these, but the first wave of the pandemic demonstrated the need for proactive thinking about how we will stay safe and healthy.

  • We know that for some seniors (and also people of all ages!), the shut-in phase of the first wave of the pandemic was a lonely and isolating time. You might discuss how you can help make it easier for your parents if there is another time we are need to self-isolate, especially during the winter. For example, many older adults are very tech savvy and others still aren’t fully up to speed on some of the options available for video calls, which can create more connection than voice-only calls. If your parents struggled with technology during the last 6 months, this would be a good time to address those issues and make sure they are comfortable with using that technology on their own. You might also want to think about implementing a rotating schedule with your family to connect with your parents on a daily, or near daily, basis.

  • This is also a good time to discuss with your parents different living options and to consider what might be best for them in the near future, as well as further down the road. They might want to think about retirement living so there are people available to help them if they need it, as well as ready opportunities for socialization and connection no matter the circumstances. One of the many benefits of retirement living is the mix of both privacy and the security, with people always on hand to help your parent if they need them. And of course, there is the significant benefit of not having to worry about household maintenance or daily chores!

Tips for having Essential Conversations with your parents:

  • To make your conversations with your parents more effective and harmonious, consider starting them by sharing that you want to support your parents’ quality of life, both today and in the future. You can add that, given the past few months, there are some things it might be helpful to discuss to ensure they have everything they need if there is a second wave of the pandemic.

  • You might also share with them that by being proactive and doing some planning together, they are much more likely to be able to make their own choices. When people have to make care or living decisions in a crisis, they often don’t have the same level of choice as when they think about those things ahead of time. Again, you can reassure them that your goal is to help them maintain control over their lives—that’s why you are having these discussions!

  • Remember that the pandemic has raised feelings of vulnerability, anxiety and uncertainty for many people. You may decide it’s best to raise the topic with your parents and siblings around the Thanksgiving holiday, and then choose a time to revisit it in a couple of weeks. That will allow everyone to have time to think about ways to prepare for the next few months, as well as consider living arrangements for the longer term.

Thanksgiving is a time we reflect on all that we have to be grateful for. Even in the midst of a very difficult year, may your Thanksgiving—however you are celebrating it—be filled with gratitude and laughter! And may you find the opportunities to have conversations that may allow your parents to have more joy and ease during the next few months and in the years ahead.