There seems to be a cultural shift that is encouraging people to have “The Conversation”—the one in which they discuss a looming conflict or life crisis with loved ones—earlier on.
For many individuals, that conversation is prompted by chronic illness, sudden diagnosis of dementia, or changes in physical health due to aging. Typically, that kind of frank talk has been put off until it became an absolute necessity, but times may be changing.
For decades, child development experts have been studying the best approaches to discussing impending individual and social crises, focused mostly on drugs, alcohol and sex. Their research has yielded communication tools and strategies that parents can use to engage in meaningful conversations with their children about difficult and taboo topics. Although these are not easy discussions, they are facilitated by feelings of parental obligation and a moral code of conduct to help children understand and plan for these inevitable challenges.
In adulthood, we often struggle with how to engage in similarly meaningful conversations with parents and aging relatives. Roz Chast, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, chides her inability to have a conversation with her aging parents in her cartoon, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant”. She uses humor to illustrate the difficulty she faces having adult conversations with her parents about death, dying, getting help, or moving to a care community. Instead of talking in earnest, they focus on the cheese danish. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as they, once again, manage to avoid “The Conversation”.
The good news is that attitudes are shifting. Members of the baby boom generation are beginning to talk to their adult children about an array of issues related to aging, such as changing bodily functions, dementia, care options, and beliefs about assisted suicide. Researchers have found that the acceptance of aging builds emotional resilience and increased optimism. So even as older adults are faced with what society deems as negative outcomes regarding physical and cognitive health, they are becoming more comfortable adapting to their situation. As a result, Baby Boomers are often more willing than previous generations of older adults to discuss their wants and needs with peers, family members, and health care providers.
All of us—caregivers, family members and friends alike—need to continue encouraging the dialogue and break through the long-held notion that these conversations are depressing. Planning for your old age—and the changes, joys, and challenges you might encounter—is a wonderful way to enter an exciting phase of life with resilience and optimism.