8 Questions You Must Ask to Keep Your Aging Parents Safe and Healthy

Updated: Jan. 10, 2018

Touchy subjects like money and mental health aren't easy to bring up to your aging parents. But they are essential conversations to have. Here's how to get the ball rolling.

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Are you partnering or parenting?

The first question is for you. It’s not merely a matter of role reversal when we step in to care for our aging parents. In fact, “partnering, not parenting” is what Joy Loverde, consultant, spokesperson for the mature-market industry and author of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? It’s not always easy watching our parents age. When we begin to notice memory loss or their energy level decline, it’s a signal our parents are aging. “Below the surface, adult children struggle with the fact that their parents will not be around forever. To avert the inevitable, the perceived role of the adult child is to shelter and protect parents at all costs,” says Loverde. Our parents, however, want to remain independent as much as possible and not be a burden to us. They’ll need our help to get them to doctor visits, with day-to-day financial decisions, and care decisions. “But nowhere in performing these and similar tasks should your actions be interpreted as taking on the role of parenting your parent,” advises Loverde. It’s not easy navigating your aging parent’s needs. Here’s some insight into the care your parents may need.

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Are they lonely?

Asking your mom or dad if they’re lonely probably won’t result in an honest answer. But loneliness can be hazardous to your parents health so it’s an important question. However, you’ll have to be a little more creative in how you ask. David Inns, CEO of GreatCall, a connected health company for active aging, recommends trying the following: Have you been getting out of the house lately? Are you keeping in touch with family and friends by phone, e-mail, or social media? How are your friends doing? What did you do this week, did you go anywhere? “In addition to the responses to these questions, consider if your parent lives alone, or whether a family member or friend has recently moved or passed away, as these factors are likely to increase feelings of loneliness,” says Inns. Listen for clues in your conversations with your parent to help determine if they are lonely or depressed. For example, are they sharing stories about their activities with friends? Are they still going to church or volunteering? Do they show any interest in their cell phone, the Internet or using social media? “On the other hand, if your parent has never been known to socialize or make friends, and prefers a more solitary lifestyle, there is no reason to believe this situation will change,” says Loverde.

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Should they be driving?

Driving is form of independence that is difficult to give up for most aging parents. It can be a very sensitive issue that requires a little finesse when broaching the subject. “Giving up driving is a top fear for older adults, as it can significantly impact their independence and self-esteem. When determining if it’s time for parents to stop driving, check out what shape their car is in. Look for dents in the car and see if there is gas in the tank. You can also take a drive with them to see how they do,” suggests Inn. Open up your discussion by asking how they feel about driving and the possibility of giving up their keys. In addition, Inns suggests these questions: Are you afraid to drive due to your hearing or vision issues? Are you worried about putting the transportation burden on family members? Do you feel your independence will be limited or restricted if you stop driving? Here are a few more warning signs it may be time for a parent to give up the keys.

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How is their mental health?

“Asking questions about mental health is challenging, so before having a conversation, observe their behavior and determine whether you have reason to be concerned,” says Inns. Pay special attention to the house. Is it neat or full of clutter? Does the fridge and pantry have ample food supplies? Are there newspapers in the driveway or days of mail in the mailbox? Next, observe your parents. Is your mom forgetting things? Are they dressing appropriately and showering? Does your dad seem confused doing simple tasks or following conversations? “Be sure to carry the conversation as one adult talking to another, rather than an adult talking to a child. Talking down to older adults, also known as using ‘elderspeak,’ (sing-song, exaggerated tones or talking slowly or loudly )is not effective, especially when discussing a sensitive subject like mental health,” says Inns. Lovingly remind them you’re a partner in their care rather than an advisor. Here’s how to make a house safer for your parents.


What meds are they taking?

Being in-the-know about your parents prescriptions is serious business and an ongoing process. Your parent may suddenly stop taking their meds because they feel better or maybe they don’t feel the meds are working. Loverde says there are three objectives to keep in mind when having conversations with our parent: Find out the purpose of each prescription and oversee effectiveness, help your parent to manage their prescriptions responsibly and uncover the possibility of mismanaging the drugs. Some important questions Loverde suggests asking are, What medicine(s), topical creams, vitamins or over-the-counter meds are you currently taking? How do you know when to take each medication? Can you show me your system for remembering to take them? Do you feel confident about managing your meds or would you like a little help with it? Learn the important questions to ask before taking prescription medication.


Do they have their legal affairs in order?

Legal issues are super sensitive and not something you just want to bring up out the blue. “In the absence of a trusting relationship, adult children run the risk of being shut out, especially when they are perceived by their parents as coming on too strong,” Loverde cautions. First, plant a seed. “No matter your age, in your parents’ eyes you are still ‘their child.’ Published articles can well serve as an authority figure when you are not considered as such,” says Loverde. (Here’s a great article on end of life planning.) Speak to the facts that you may not have been aware of. For example, maybe you didn’t know that without establishing a power of attorney, a court-appointed guardian could take over your finances and decision-making powers. If your parent doesn’t see the need to get their legal affairs in order just yet, turn the tables. “Gently remind them that an undeniable fact of life is that no one knows who is going to die first within the family—the parent or the child. Let this reality work in your behalf,” says Loverde. Let them know you have your affairs in order and ask if you can give them the information, then ask them what is it that you can do in the event of something happening to them. Or, if you need to take yourself out of the equation, ask your parent if they would like to talk about these legal affairs with a sibling instead.


How do they feel about their living arrangements?

The prospect of moving from a beloved family home into an assisted living facility can be a frightening prospect for your parent—and yourself. “When discussing living arrangements with aging parents, it’s important to understand the options before suggesting a change in circumstance,” suggests Inns. “Nearly 90 percent of older adults want to remain in their own homes, and this may require home modifications for safety and accessibility as well as the use of technology, from sensors to medical alerts, to make this an option.” Although options are plentiful some may not be suitable for your parents budget, lifestyle, or health requirements. It’s important to start asking questions before an unforeseen issue occurs that necessitates assisted care. Try: How do you feel about assisted living or retirement villages? Would you like to tour some facilities? How do you feel about moving in with me? Would you feel more secure at home if a caregiver came by a few days each week? If your parent decides on assisted living, here’s how to help them make the transition.


Are they paying their bills?

You want to be assured your dad’s electricity won’t get shut off and that they have enough money for their basic needs, but how do you talk about where all their money is going without it being so awkward? “As a family caregiver, their finances can impact you. As with all touchy subjects, do your research before having a conversation, and make sure the discussion is a two-way street,” says Inns. Some questions to consider asking: Are you comfortable with your current financial situation? What do you think the next steps are? Would you consider establishing a joint bank account so I can help with paying the bills? Would you like for me or another trusted family member to know more about your investments, work benefits, mortgage, etc.? Here’s some senior discounts you may not know about!