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Hard Questions For Adult Children And Their Aging ParentsFacing The Future Together, With Courage And Compassion
By Susan Piver
The Penguin PressISBN: 1-59240-077-9
Chapter OneFor Self and Siblings Only
I would suggest that before you begin to ask and answer any of The Hard Questions with your parents, you should, if at all possible, discuss the possibility of doing so with your siblings. It's been shown time and again that even though you theoretically grew up in the same environment, raised by the same parents, your experiences, feelings about, or perceptions of those experiences may be different. And your current financial, psychological, and spiritual situations may also be different. Any or all of those differences may affect the way you view the possibility of broaching various subjects with your parents, and so, if you have a close-or at least non-contentious-relationship with your brothers and sisters, it may be healthiest to pursue this conversation among yourselves before approaching your parents.
Remember, the answers to questions about finances and legalities can have a very real impact on every one of you. If, for example, after your parents have passed away, the family home is to be sold, each sibling may have his or her own opinion about how it would be best-both financially and emotionally-to carry out that responsibility.
And, questions relating to relationships and spirituality-even more than those relating to finances or other purely practical matters-can have profound emotional effects, for good or for ill, on each sibling in a very different way.
It might be useful, therefore, to begin the conversation with your siblings by asking each of them to share his or her particular insights and feelings about which issues to address and which to leave alone, so that you can try to come to consensus about which questions it will be most important for you to discuss with your parents.
If you can't agree to discuss every area suggested in this book, try to come up with one (finances, health care, or spirituality, for example) that you all feel comfortable pursuing-with the agreement that, if the conversation goes well, you will try to pursue a second area, and then perhaps a third.
Or, if you can't agree on one entire set of questions to pursue, try to come up with just two or three, taken from one subject area or several. Then, if that goes well, perhaps you'll agree to ask more. It's totally fine to take this process one small step at a time. It's tempting to do one of two things with our aging parents: figure "this is the last chance, I better express all my pent-up feelings now," or "forget about it; it's too late to make any difference anyway." Anger and sadness are likely to be the emotions underlying both these impulses. If you or your siblings are experiencing either one, it's important to ask yourselves-and one another-whether it's possible to set those feelings aside in order to serve your parents' needs, as well as your own, by trying to learn more about their hopes and fears at this time in their life. Can you express your feelings in a way that is appropriate and skillful? Is your intention in wanting to do so based in love more than fear? Can your siblings also do this? The greater the certainty with which you and your siblings are able to answer these questions, the better you will be able to judge the best time, atmosphere, and rhythm for approaching The Hard Questions with your parents.
Needless to say, sorting through each sibling's emotional, spiritual, and practical "agenda" can be complicated at best. Depending upon the dynamics that govern your relationship, any one of the following outcomes may result:
You choose to bypass your siblings entirely because you believe they won't have any interest in the outcome or will disrupt the process completely, and you go to your parents directly.
You inform your siblings that you're going to have this conversation with your parents and just want them to be aware that you're doing so.
You alone have the dialogue with your parents, but you report the outcome to siblings.
You and your siblings select a subset of important questions (that is, only those about finances, or only those relating to spiritual beliefs) and pursue a family dialogue about that specific topic.
You and your siblings decide that one of you will discuss The Hard Questions (all or a subset) with your parents on everyone's behalf.
You plan and carry out the dialogue together.
There is no one choice that is correct for everyone, but if there's any way to promote healing, openness, and a deeper emotional connection among you, your siblings, and your parents, it would be brave to choose the option that provides the greatest likelihood of that outcome.
And, of course, if it's deemed wise, it can be useful to bring in a therapist, advisor, mediator, family friend, or pastoral counselor should you and your siblings need one in order to caringly and effectively relate with each other and your parents. These are vitally important questions with potentially serious consequences, both practically and spiritually. I encourage you to take the process very seriously and not hesitate to do whatever you feel is needed to bring healing, meaning, and authenticity to the exchange. Even if you're an only child, it can be helpful to review the questions on your own before bringing them up with your parents. Or, if you prefer, ask a trusted friend to help you think them through. Preparing in advance, whether you are one of a large family or have no siblings at all, can help to ensure a more loving and practical conversation.
1. What is making me/us want to enter into this dialogue at this time with my/our parents? List two or three (or more) specific outcomes I/we hope to achieve (for example, a housing plan should one or both parents become incapacitated; a list of important contacts such as doctors, lawyers, and so forth; a robust discussion about family history and lineage; clarity about how our parents' assets might be distributed).
2. What emotional and/or practical outcomes do we hope for? Which do we fear?
3. Will our parents welcome this discussion? One? Both? Neither?
4. Should we siblings all talk to both our parents together? Would it be better to speak to each of them separately? Should one sibling be designated as spokesperson for all with one or both parents?
5. If we have stepsiblings, should we all pursue this dialogue together? Or are there good reasons to pursue it separately?
6. If our parents are divorced, how would it be best to have the conversation with them: Together? Separately? With their new spouse or not?
7. Is my relationship with my parents strained in any way? What about that between my parents and my sibling(s)? If so, how might that affect our dialogue?
8. Are there issues we need to resolve among ourselves before we can move forward as a family? If so, what are they?
9. If it were needed, who could I/we count on for support during this dialogue? Other relatives? Spouses? Close friends? Doctor? Clergy?
10. If our family includes stepparents, step- or half-siblings, what is the proper means for including them (or not) in this conversation?
11. Are there any housing and/or financial issues we should discuss among ourselves before approaching our parents? For example, are any of us prepared to have Mom and/or Dad come live with us? If so, would we all be expected to contribute financially or otherwise to their care?
12. If one or both of our parents needed and/or desired managed care and were unable to afford it, could we pay for it?
13. If our parents are in good enough health and are willing to do so, are there emotional or spiritual topics we would like to discuss with them? (For instance, emotional upsets we can resolve, unspoken feelings that would be appropriate and useful to express, questions about values and beliefs that could help us support them-or each other?)
14. What if our parents are depressed, angry, or in denial about their growing neediness as they age-and these feelings prevent (or have prevented) them from properly planning for their old age and declining health? How can we encourage them to participate in this dialogue anyway? Are there others we can call upon for support (trusted friends, other relatives, and so forth)? Are there certain questions we should isolate as most important and try to discuss those only? Is there some kindness or respect we can show them that would make it easier for them to participate?
15. If either or both of them are unwilling-or unable-to talk to us, is there a trusted friend, advisor, or lawyer who could help us gather the information we believe it is necessary for us to have?
16. Has considering all of the above caused us to think about conversations we might want to have with our own children at this time?
Excerpted from Hard Questions For Adult Children And Their Aging Parents by Susan Piver Excerpted by permission.
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