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Tackling Difficult Conversations with Elderly Relatives
June 14, 2021
Tackling Difficult Conversations with Elderly Relatives

Language expert, Dr Elisabeth Carter has revealed her top tips for approaching difficult topics such as financial management, funeral plans and moving home with elderly relatives. 

Family members often have to face difficult decisions when it comes to taking care of their elderly relatives.

Ageing family members are often forced to decide whether they should relocate to be closer to family, whether they should plan their own funeral, and whether they should appoint a family member to manage finances on their behalf.

But elderly relatives are often keen to retain their independence. Dr Carter says it is important family members approach important conversations in a way that is inclusive and does not make the elderly family member feel isolated or overwhelmed.

Dr Carter’s top tips are: 

  1. Don’t isolate elderly relatives: Dr Carter says: “The main thing is to not make the elderly person in your family feel isolated, or that they’re the target of an intervention. The older people in our families have obviously been around longer than we have – they have had a lot of responsibility in their lives, and they are used to being the ones who make the decisions, so having younger family members stepping in and saying ‘I need to make decisions can be particularly hard. It can be a real awakening, and a realisation of their own vulnerability, which is a really hard thing to take. Open conversations up to them, listen to their suggestions and concerns and ask them for advice.”
  1. Be respectful: Dr Carter says: “Avoid anything that involves a kind of role reversal, for example phrases you would say to your children, like ‘Oh, we have to do this for your own good’. Remember that these still are our parents or grandparents, and they might need a bit more looking after. Actually they are exactly the same people they always have been when they were young and fit and healthy. Avoid using terms like ‘you need help’ because that really strikes at the heart of taking away much valued independence.”
  2. Don’t bombard or overwhelm relatives with difficult decisions or complex information: Dr Carter says: “I would encourage people to go with the natural rhythm of their families. Try not to make conversations about money the absolute focus of one visit. I would typically say mealtimes are quite good because people are concentrating on eating, so the focus isn’t so intense on that person. They’re not all sitting around looking at this one person saying ‘you need help’.

Going out for a walk can be a good time too. There’s something quite soothing about walking along and those feel good chemicals. It can be a good time to start talking.”

  1. Listen to elderly relatives and help them retain their voice: Dr Carter says: “I would advise family members to start a conversation more widely, so it is not just the younger generation telling the older generation. This way you can involve everyone in the family discussions around finances, perhaps you could ask the older people in the family to talk to the youngest people in the family about what money was like in their day, about how they had to manage their finances when they were younger, enabling them to have that kind of ownership over the discussion and a voice.

It is really important to enable the older people in the family to retain their voice.  These are things that are really precious, and many other things have gone: their working life, and maybe some other types of independence have gone. So it’s important to protect the value of their voice and not erode independence further.”

Dr Carter is sharing her top tips after our In Safe Hands report revealed that twice as many of those aged 70+ (70%) said they were worried about becoming a target for thefts, scams or frauds compared to just 35% who were concerned about their future health and a third fearing the loss of their independence.

Nick Thompson, co-founder of GuardianCard said: “Our research recently showed elderly people truly fear financial abuse. It is therefore important for younger family members to open up conversations with their elderly relatives about keeping their finances safe, and it can help to have conversations around other difficult topics such as care plans and funeral arrangements.

“Dr Carter’s advice should prove helpful to anyone who is struggling to speak to their loved ones about plans for the future.”

One of our customers, Kirsten Bolton, recently told us about the conversation she had with her mum about financial management after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. She said: “My mum’s diagnosis came as a shock to all of us, and after a few incidents where she had received phishing calls or given her PIN out in a shop, my brother and I knew we needed to have a conversation with her about managing her finances. 

“It was a very calm, honest conversation. We didn’t make a big deal out of it and were very open. My mum had lots of questions and luckily we’d found a  solution in GuardianCard, so we were able to answer all of these. 

“My brother and I discussed things beforehand and then I had the conversation face to face with my mum when I went to visit her one afternoon. Thankfully we didn’t need to tiptoe around the topic and could have an open and frank conversation. It’s really refreshing to be able to openly discuss something so important.”

About the Author

Esther George