'Invisible Conversations' are difficult to have with aging parents
Having a heart-to-heart talk with your parents doesn’t get any easier the older you get. In many cases, it can be much more difficult because the stakes may be much higher, particularly for adult children of the baby boomer generation and their parents.
Health concerns, where to live, money issues, aging and alcoholism, dating after a spouse’s death, and deciding when it is time to stop driving are issues where emotions can easily trump good judgment.
Shannon White, pastor at Wilton Presbyterian Church, calls these issues “invisible conversations,” a phrase she has actually trademarked. They are the subject of her book The Invisible Conversations with Your Aging Parents, and a conversation she will have with the community on Sunday, June 2, at 1 in the church sanctuary. The program is not just for parents and children, but will be relevant to spouses, extended family, neighbors, and anyone involved in a “circle of care.”
Invisible conversations, she said in a talk with The Bulletin this week, “are the conversations in your head that never come out of your mouth” or that you have with someone not directly involved in the issue.
In the 22 years since she has been ordained, Ms. White has heard myriad stories of families where lack of communication can have results ranging from difficult to disastrous. There are instances where one spouse has died and the surviving spouse has no idea where important documents have been kept. There are times when hurt feelings are pent up and never resolved.
“You can do it at the grave,” she said, or have an honest conversation to clear up unfinished business while the person is still living.
Ms. White writes from personal experience, having had to face such a conversation with her father when he died years ago. She had always been afraid of her father and suffered from his temper. After working through her feelings with a therapist, she approached him.
She said, “Dad, I have always been afraid of you. But I’m here to tell you that I’m OK. I’m fine. The things which happened between us have not held me back. What’s important now is that there is love, and peace, and forgiveness.”
Unable to speak because of having a laryngectomy, her father blew her a kiss and closed his eyes.
“It doesn’t have to be a big deal,” she said. “My conversation was 10 minutes. … You can say something at the end that is helpful to both.”
Ms. White quoted Dr. Ira Byock, a physician specializing in palliative care, who offered these words:
“Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
Ms. White’s presentation on Sunday will follow the pattern of her book. She will introduce a topic and offer some research and questions to get into a conversation. She will then engage the audience in a conversation.
“We’ll problem-solve together,” she said.
One topic covered in the book is documents. Do parents have a living will, medical power of attorney, DNR, last will and testament, medical and drug information sheet?
If an adult child is expected to be a patient advocate for his or her parent, does the adult child know the parent’s wishes?
Where is the older person to live? Ms. White suggests asking a parent, “‘What would you like your life to look like and how can we help you do that?’ You want to give control back to the aging parent.”
Money can be a huge source of family entanglements, but one of the most common issues has to do with older adults driving.
“Driving is such a symbol of autonomy,” she said. “It can be devastating” to lose that freedom, and often parent and child are not in agreement.
Whatever the subject, “all conversations need to be done with dignity and respect,” she said.
One thing to remember, she added, is that “as much as you think it is about something else, it is about your own self-development. How do you transition to another stage of life?
“As a person who’s caregiving on any level, how do you do it with care and respect so as not to be demeaning,” she said.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, Ms. White said, “because each conversation is organic to the relationship you’re in. Conversations are always new because new issues come up.”
Copies of Ms. White’s book will be available at the presentation and profits will be donated to the church. For information, call 203-762-5514.
Ms. White said she assumes people attending on Sunday will have already started conversations with their loved ones.
“This is to help at any point along the journey,” she said, “and where to find support.”