How to have difficult conversations with family members10 min read
Conversations about aged care can be difficult. It can be even more stressful when family members don’t agree. It’s common for people to put off or avoid doing something that might cause conflict. You may need to discuss care options with family members, address financial issues with your mum or dad, or break bad news.
Regardless of family dynamics, discussions about the care of older family members are important. Here are tips on how to have productive conversations, even if it’s the last thing any of you want to do.
Set the scene
Make sure everyone knows that a conversation is needed. Don’t surprise people with a difficult topic.
Scheduling a time to chat gives everyone a chance to gather their thoughts ahead of time.
Include the right people
You don’t want anyone to feel excluded from important discussions. You also don’t want your older relatives to feel ganged up on.
If your family is in conflict, consider inviting an objective outsider. This can be someone from the clergy, a close family friend, or a care manager who can facilitate the conversation.
Preparation is key
Before your meeting, write down things you want to discuss. Include any key points that must be raised. Be honest about your concerns and list any questions you have.
Gather all the information you have available. If there are things you can share with the rest of the group before the meeting, send it to them so they have time to review.
Duncan Ridley is part of Brightwater’s Carers Recognition Advisory Group. He shared information with his sons about his wife’s care options prior to deciding on a residential facility.
“I’d given them the My Aged Care handbook of all of the facilities,” Duncan said.
“It just made it a lot easier for the boys and me to run through all the bits and pieces.”
Set boundaries and ground rules
Brightwater Senior Social Worker Amanda Wallace has plenty of experience helping families with uncomfortable conversations. She recommends starting a meeting by giving everyone a chance to speak before tackling the bigger topic.
“I start by asking how everybody is feeling,” Amanda said.
“I tell them this is a sensitive subject. They may get emotional, want to leave or want to stop the meeting.”
She ensures everyone knows what to expect and what is expected of them. Honesty is on the top of her list.
“My belief is that people might not like what you’re saying, but it’s much better to be honest,” Amanda said.
If people feel they are safe to speak honestly and openly, misunderstandings and issues can be resolved more quickly. According to Amanda, it’s not unusual for family members to have different information or wrong information.
“For example, a lot of people feel the firstborn is the person who has the right to make decisions,” Amanda said.
Listen, listen, listen
The best outcomes for difficult conversations happen when everyone feels heard. If you demonstrate being interested and engaged in what your family members are saying, you’re likely to learn more about their position. They’re also more likely to do the same for you.
Ask open-ended, neutral questions to encourage more meaningful discussion. Ask follow-up questions like:
- Can you tell me more about that?
- How does that make you feel?
It also helps to repeat what another person is saying, in your own words, to ensure there are no misunderstandings. You can say. “What I’m hearing you say is . . .”.
Lastly, don’t interrupt or talk over someone else.
Share your concerns
Part of being open and honest is delivering news other people would rather not hear. Now is the time to address concerns about your parent’s safety or finances. Let your siblings know you need help or are disappointed they haven’t been more supportive. You can discuss your own fears or say why you haven’t been more active in caring for older people in your family.
Try to be as objective as possible and give clear examples of what’s bothering you. If you find this confronting, use these prompts to begin:
- I’d like to share something that happened to get your advice on how we might address it.
- I was worried when . . .
- How would you have handled this situation . . . ?
At the end of the discussion, summarise what happened and agree to the next step. It may take several conversations but open, honest discussion will be your best chance of getting agreement, even when you have to make a stressful decision.
Remember you all have a common goal – giving your older loved ones the best possible care and quality of life.