Getting Everyone to the Table: Discussions About Senior Living

January 28, 2022

Originally posted on Commonwealth Senior Living’s blogMindy gives some pointers on why we often avoid initiating the conversations about a move to community living with our loved ones. She gives some helpful tips for approaching your loved one about your concerns and suggesting the idea of a move. Here’s Mindy’s blog post with insightful tips and guidelines to help you get everyone together to start a discussion about senior living:

In the past, we’ve discussed clutter clues that might indicate that a senior loved one is struggling to maintain the demands of a single family home. So, what next? If you noticed any of these safety warning signs over the holiday season, how do you approach your loved one about your concerns? How might you suggest the idea of a move to community living? Many of us agonize over the uncertainties of this conversation. Perhaps you’ve even tried to broach the topic with family members in the past only to have the dialogue break down in frustration or stalemate. Ugh. Although it might feel better to leave that stone unturned, avoiding the topic can lead to bigger challenges in the future.

In my organizing courses and presentations, I talk a lot about avoidance. Avoidance— and it’s close cousin, inertia— is one of the primary obstacles to achieving your goals. We see the results of avoidance every day in our organizing work. I compare it to returning an overdue library book. It sucks to pay the fine today, but today’s fine is better than tomorrow’s. Seems logical, and yet we all can get caught walking the path of least resistance. If we know it’s best to take action, why do we leave the “elephant in the room?” Here’s why we often avoid initiating these conversations:

We think it’s too far in the future. 

I’m a huge proponent of having these conversations early and often. In reality, the longer you delay, the harder these conversations become because options become more limited. Don’t wait for a triggering event. A crisis is the absolute worst time to have this discussion. Focus on building a plan, rather than jumping into action. One of my favorite questions to break through this “not now but one day” mindset is “How will we know when it’s the right time to take action on this?”

We think it’s depressing or upsetting.

In fact, these conversations don’t have to be heavy or sad. Instead of steeling yourself for a moment that’s formal or stiff, let your curiosity be your guide. Resist allowing fear to drive your agenda or tone. In my own family, my parents and I ended up having an impromptu conversation while we were vacationing together. We were having cocktails by the water and I asked a question that sparked. I put the phone on record and we talked, laughed, and— most importantly— I listened, so I could truly understand their goals and priorities.

Our loved one is afraid to lose control.

In senior move management, we have a hard and fast rule that the person in transition is our client. That mantra helps ensure that we are focused on meeting that individual’s needs above the interests of all other stakeholders. How can you make sure your loved one is firmly in the drivers seat during discussions impacting his or her future? Even if you have no concerns and your loved one doesn’t need to move any time soon, it’s valuable for everyone to have a plan. The most productive dialogue happens when everyone feels safe and secure. For someone who values control, the worst thing you can do is avoid the opportunity to share your feelings and advocate for yourself while you have the time and space to reflect without stress.

Understanding and appreciating everyone’s vulnerability around a topic like senior transitions can lead to a more meaningful conversation. Sometimes we have to start gently, or be prepared to circle back to the topic consistently over time. When everyone has come to the table, here are some tips on maintaining a productive and meaningful dialogue:

Don’t go in with an agenda.

It certainly helps to gather facts and information first, however the primary goal is to initiate a dialogue, to answer questions, or to problem solve. If you have concerns state what are you observing without assigning adjectives or judgement. Ask a lot of open ended questions, park your emotions at the door, stick to the facts, and be ready to LISTEN.

Be prepared to have these conversations any time.

Sometimes an opening presents itself. Listen for relevant anecdotes about family friends, neighbors, or other contemporaries in casual conversation. Share stories of your peers and how their families handled transition. Lead with your curiosity. If you get deflected, ask: “If not now, when?” Don’t let that shut you down forever.These conversations tend to get easier the more you revisit them. Many people need to process for a while before they can feel confident making what they perceive to be a big or high stakes decision.

Use whatever tools you need.

I’m a big fan of using props or tools to guide/trigger the conversation. For several months before my family’s first conversation, I *might* have been strategically leaving brochures from senior living communities where my parents would find them. There are many helpful resources online, including conversation-prompting flashcards, note-taking worksheets, and topic checklists.

Involve a professional.

If emotions run high or you want more expert information, consider talking with a professional in senior living. A neutral third party can often diffuse tricky emotional baggage and distill a conversation down to actionable steps. The people who support seniors through these transitions every day know what questions to ask. My family found great value in sitting down with a senior living advisor to get an understanding of the different types of senior living communities and related benefits. She also educated us about a helpful military benefit that was available to assist my parents with costs as a result of my father’s military service. Read more here about Commonwealth’s Promise to Veterans, that helps veterans and their spouses receive benefits and a locked base rent for life.

Stay present. 

How are your listening skills? Try to concentrate on listening to understand versus listening to respond. It may take some advanced practice to build self-awareness here. Listen for values themes in your loved one’s stories: do they emphasize security, friends, quality of care, or geographic proximity and quality time? Repeat key points back to confirm your understanding and make sure everyone is on the same page. Use a smartphone to record the audio or video so you can focus on listening, not taking notes. It might also be helpful to revisit later for clarification if there’s disagreement or confusion.

Focus on areas of agreement, not dissent. 

This tool is handy in any kind of negotiation. Many of us have a tendency to back our position so rigorously that we can’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, we risk losing creativity that could lead to compromise. Find areas of common ground and leverage those as your starting point for building further consensus. Sometimes something that sounds like a roadblock, e.g.: “I can’t move because of my dog” can be an area of progress: “Sounds like if we found a place that accepts dogs, where other community members also have dogs, that might be a possibility we could consider.”

These conversations are never predictable and can seem daunting, but they may be easier than you think. Reaching understanding and consensus can give everyone a sense of deep relief. Just like anything important, getting started is often the hardest part. Find a window of opportunity and dive in!

Let us know if these tips for starting that conversation were helpful for you, or if you have tried another tactic and its results. Contact the community nearest you today.