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5 caregiving tips: how to talk to aging parents about changing health needs

As our parents age, open and honest conversations about their changing health needs can help ensure their safety and wellbeing while helping to reduce caregiver stress. In Canada, the population aged 65 and older is growing rapidly, with projections suggesting that seniors will make up about 25 per cent of the population by 2036

In this article, Dr. Matthew Chow, a Psychiatrist and the Chief Mental Health Officer at TELUS Health, shares five ways caregivers can support their loved ones in maintaining their independence and quality of life through open communication. 

Anticipate that caregiving can change family dynamics

Caregiving is a complex and ever-evolving journey that can be full of many emotions as our loved ones age. 

"Aging is a normal part of human development,” explains Dr. Chow. “Just like we expect kids to grow up and mature, adult aging is also a developmental stage. Aging can be full of positive changes like improved emotional stability, maturity and wisdom, or our ability to integrate knowledge and different concepts.”

Physical changes that come with aging, like increased fall risks or hospitalization, can often be viewed negatively by seniors and their loved ones out of worry for physical safety. But it’s a core topic that families can prepare to discuss and navigate together.

Falls are the leading cause of injury among older Canadians, with 20 to 30 per cent of seniors experiencing one or more falls each year. To help caregivers balance their parent’s desire for independence and autonomy with safety precautions, Dr. Chow suggests starting to talk about safety before it becomes an issue.

“Just like we expect kids to grow up and mature, adult aging is also a developmental stage.” - Dr. Matthew Chow

"Being part of that journey as a caregiver is noticing when some of these cognitive or physical changes take place and having open, at times quite vulnerable, communication with your loved one about those changes,” he says. Talking about aging can shift the traditional parent-child dynamics in a family, which may also come with different cultural norms.

Takeaway: It’s essential to approach conversations about aging with sensitivity and understanding that your parent may have worries and insecurities about losing their independence or becoming a burden on their family. Oftentimes, parents may be in denial about their aging and need for additional support. It may take many conversations (or attempts at conversations), and that’s ok. 

Prepare to talk about aging

Before starting a conversation about your loved one's changing health needs, take a moment to reflect and choose a good time and setting. "One of the strategies I find that mitigates against many of these worries is actually having the conversation early before changes take place," Dr. Chow shares. Consider scheduling a dedicated time to discuss your concerns, preferably when you and your parent are well-rested and free from distractions or time limitations.

Take the time to gather relevant information and resources beforehand, such as options for in-home modifications, assistive devices and tech. Research services and support systems available in the area, such as home care, meal delivery or transportation assistance. This prep work can prove invaluable to caregivers learning about what they can expect and how they can be there for their loved ones.

You may also consider involving other family members or trusted healthcare professionals to provide additional support and guidance to you or your loved one. A united front may help your parent feel more supported and less defensive during the conversation.

Takeaway: Do your research for your peace of mind as much as for the benefit of your parent.

Discuss aging with empathy and offer support 

Empathy and understanding can help ease stress and worry for both parties when discussing your aging parent’s changing health needs. Dr. Chow emphasizes, "I think the most harmful thing is when we're silent about aging. When we're afraid to talk about the changes, when we're afraid of insulting or offending people or showing disrespect, and in fact, the most respectful thing someone can do is actually to be on that journey with them."

"I think the most harmful thing is when we're silent about aging.” -Dr. Matthew Chow

Another important thing to tell your loved one may be your offer to be a support person. Social isolation and loneliness have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of older Canadians, and having a support person is increasingly common in many healthcare settings. Dr. Chow has worked with cancer patients extensively and explains that having a support person is essentially compulsory. “When somebody is receiving a diagnosis of cancer or learning about the initial treatment options and thinking through the treatment options, a support person benefits your outcomes emotionally, psychologically and cognitively,” he explains. “At any age,” he adds.

Takeaway: Having a support person benefits people navigating the healthcare system — at any age. Remember to offer the level of caregiving and support you are comfortable with so your loved one may choose to accept without pressure.

Overcome resistance and objections with active listening

It's common for aging parents to have concerns about sensitive things like cost, privacy and stigma when it comes to accepting support or using assistive devices. Practicing active listening and validating your parent’s feelings and concerns can help them to feel acknowledged and reassured.

Dr. Chow suggests emphasizing that accepting help is a sign of strength, not weakness and that trying out new solutions may help maintain their independence and autonomy.

If the conversation gets tense, focus on your shared goals and values, like maintaining your loved one’s independence and quality of life. Dr. Chow recommends using "I" statements that express your concerns while showing that you care, such as "I worry about your safety when you're alone" or "I want to ensure that you have the support you need to stay healthy and happy."

Takeaway: Active listening can help foster closeness, particularly with challenging topics. Stay open to the likelihood that it may take several conversations to make inroads on issues like changing health needs. Suggesting temporary or trial periods of new devices, tools, or support can also lessen the stakes for a weary parent.

Keep communication about changing health needs open

Maintaining open communication is a long-term requirement for caregivers and their parents. Regular check-ins and discussions about your loved one’s changing needs can help you stay informed and proactive in your caregiving role.

Encourage your parent to openly share their thoughts and feelings and be receptive to their feedback. Though this may be a new or different dynamic in your relationship, it’s still a two-way street.

Dr. Chow is excited by the wide range of innovative health tech and tools constantly becoming available and suggests exploring options for your parent and for yourself. “Taking care of others can’t come at the expense of your own health and wellbeing. You can’t assist others until you put your own oxygen mask on first,” he advises.

Takeaway: Caring for the caregiver is profoundly important, and seeking support for yourself should not be deprioritized. Consider virtual counselling options like TELUS Health MyCare for yourself or your loved ones if distance, waitlists, or scheduling get in the way. Just as you might expect your older loved one to share their input with you, remember to ask for their feedback and look for solutions that fit their lifestyle, like TELUS Health Medical Alert for emergency support at home, on the go and even while travelling within Canada.

Discussing changing health needs with aging parents can be challenging, but it’s necessary. By approaching the topic with empathy, preparation, and an open mind, you can help your loved ones feel more independent and enjoy a better quality of life.

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