What do you and your family usually talk about when you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner?
There are a few staples you’re sure to touch on: how all the kids are doing in school, how your team is playing this season, how fast the time is flying. That stuff all comes easily.
But as the years go by, another topic starts to creep into the back of our minds: aging.
“Grandma is looking frail... way more frail than she did at Easter. Don’t you think?”
“Aunt Edna keeps asking where her napkin is. Why does she keep asking when it’s right there in her lap?”
“Dad doesn’t look so good. Has he lost weight? Why does he look so sickly?”
Seeing the toll of aging
For many of us, big family gatherings are wonderful, joyous occasions. After all, it’s not every day that you can get the entire gang together around the same dinner table.
But needless to say, the holidays also have the potential to bring some difficult conversations to light. They’re a time when old wounds and disagreements can resurface; when differences of opinion can come to a head; and when emotions can run high.
If you don’t see all of your family members very often, these gatherings also mean getting up to speed on how everyone’s doing. And when it comes to older relatives, that often means we’re forced to confront the toll of aging on our older relatives. It can be really upsetting to see Grandma decline from year to year, and many of us feel at a loss about how to respond when we start noticing these changes.
My answer, as always: talk about it.
Starting tough conversations around the holidays
To be clear: no, I’m not proposing you bring up Estate Planning while you’re literally seated at the Thanksgiving dinner table. This is a serious topic, and we don’t want to distract from the fun of celebrating together!
What I am suggesting is that you use family gatherings, like Thanksgiving, as opportunities to gently broach these discussions. Find a quiet moment as the evening winds down to ask your older relative about their plans, or pull your siblings aside to ask them how they’re feeling as you all notice your parents start to age.
Why spoil the holidays by talking about this?
Well, first off, you don’t necessarily have to be spoiling anything. This doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Aging & End of Life Planning doesn’t just mean talking about death all evening; it means discussing things like what somebody wants their legacy to look like, how they want to be remembered, and what’s most important to them in life.
But more to the point: it’s good to strike while the iron is hot. Right now, the family is all together and able to have a face-to-face conversation. And chances are that if you’re worried about an older relative, other family members are as well. That stress can actually be a good motivator to jump into action. If you wait too long, it’s easy for people to slip back into avoidance; pretending that nothing is wrong and allowing the busyness of daily life to distract them again.
Seeing our loved ones age can be tough for a lot of us. But you know who else it can be tough for? The person who’s actually going through it! Aging can bring out the best and sometimes the worst in people. It isn’t something that most people look forward to, because our society has done a darn good job of ensuring that we believe that aging isn’t something to be excited about. What this does is encourage our aging family members to clam up, not share, and downplay everything that is going on in their lives.
Just getting the ball rolling is a hugely valuable step on its own. Oftentimes, family members hesitate to bring up these topics because they’re afraid of making others uncomfortable. But just because nobody has raised it yet doesn’t mean nobody else is thinking (or stressing out) about it.
Bringing the family together
Aging & End of Life Planning is a family affair. Families come in all shapes and sizes, but at the end of the day, ideally you are all there to support each other—today and into the future.
Be open, honest, and forthright. Share more than you think you should. Teach the next generation about how their own future could unfold, and ask your family for the support that you need. Maybe you’re not tapping into all the familial support that’s available to you.
Family is the people in our lives who love us no matter what. Through sickness, health, wealth, financial struggle, and more, it’s your family members who feel the need and obligation to stick with you to the end.
In the end, who you choose your family to be is what’s most important. What you feel in your heart is what matters.
However, it should be noted that, more often than not, the desire, and at times obligation to care for an aging person, comes from a family member, not from a friend. So this is something that we can’t ignore. Family ties are what’s most important to the support of an aging loved one.