Creating a plan for a compassionate caregiving conversation

Creating a plan for a compassionate caregiving conversation

By Eileen LawlessLife & Work Connections
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A little preparation can go a long way to ease the anxiety you might feel before talking with a parent or other loved one about quality-of-life planning, says dependent care adviser Eileen Lawless.
A little preparation can go a long way to ease the anxiety you might feel before talking with a parent or other loved one about quality-of-life planning, says dependent care adviser Eileen Lawless.
Eileen Lawless, dependent care adviser at Life & Work Connections
Eileen Lawless, dependent care adviser at Life & Work Connections

For many of us, just the idea of starting a conversation with our loved ones about caregiving brings a rush of uncomfortable emotions, even when we know in our hearts and heads that it needs to happen.

What is a caregiving conversation? It's a discussion about the decisions, directives and documents you need to complete to make sure that your loved ones' wishes, and your own wishes, are carried out in the future. These conversations may involve your parents, your partner or your children – but, always and most importantly, they all start with an acknowledgement you make to yourself.

The purpose of having a caregiving conversation is to understand what is happening now, to explore what may happen in the future and to learn what you can do to help and support.

The good news: The more attempts you make, the easier these discussions become. The more you have the conversations, the stronger the communication – and the better the opportunity to honor your loved ones and yourself.

So, what do you need to talk about? Your gut instincts will answer that question pretty quickly. The topics can include health changes you might be noticing, concerns about advance directives, and financial or legal considerations, such as the well-being of your children in the event that you or your loved one is incapacitated.

It's the importance of these relationships, and the gravity of these issues, that makes these conversations so difficult to think about, let alone take part in.

There's more good news, though: Many people, after they've taken the plunge, describe caregiving conversations as a "gift." These discussions can open the door to an experience that validates the reverence and love you feel for the people in your life. They can ease the tension and fear and bring you closer together. Your loved ones may, in fact, feel relieved when you broach the topic.

To prepare yourself for the practical and emotional aspects of a caregiving conversation, consider the steps below.

Gather information

A little preparation can go a long way, especially when fear of the unknown is serving as a barrier to discussion. Remove the mystery by learning about potential medical diagnoses, or different legal options and their requirements. Create a clear pathway to positive communication.

Define your priorities

When you consider what you need to address, decide what's most important to you. Your individual situation will determine whether you should prioritize finances, health concerns, legal issues or perhaps even end-of-life wishes first. Be open to talking about your loved one's priorities, too.

Think about who needs to be at the table

The most obvious people to involve in the conversation, of course, are you and the loved one for whom the plans are being made. People who will play an active role in any plans that result from the conversation, such as a guardianship arrangement or power of attorney document, should be included in some way as well.

Sometimes, given established family roles and complicated histories, you may foresee challenges in reaching agreement. If that's the case, consider bringing in a neutral, outside facilitator. Social workers from local caregiver organizations, private case managers, family counselors and ministers may assist in resolving issues.

Rehearse your opening statement – but not too much

You may need to practice what you wish to say or draft supportive ways to open the talk. Think about how you might follow up on "door-opener" statements from your loved ones. A parent might say "I notice I'm not moving as fast" or "It's been a while since I updated my will." Those comments could provide a perfect segue to a caregiving conversation.

Resist the urge to write yourself a script. Focus instead on bringing your authentic, loving self to the discussion. When you speak from the heart, you express honor and respect, and you reaffirm your loved one's dignity. Things will flow from there.

Keep the next talk in mind

You'll probably need to have more than one conversation, so be sure to pace yourself. As you prepare for that first discussion, approach it with a willingness to reflect on what went well, and what could go better next time. This can include family dynamics, intensity of emotions, and whether communication stayed open, respectful and engaged.

Every attempt to talk has immense value. You'll discover important lessons about your loved ones, as well as yourself. Continued conversations will lessen the anxiety of potential regrets. Purposeful, mindful care planning paves the way to a path of growth, healing and the quality of life that we all truly deserve.

And there's no time like the present to start. April is Stress Awareness Month, and April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day. Give yourself and your loved ones a gift of reduced stress and increased confidence. If you need a hand taking that first step, I'm more than willing to help. Don't hesitate to reach out for a one-on-one consultation.


Eileen Lawless is a dependent care adviser at Life & Work Connections, where she provides support and resources to University employees who care for adults from age 18 to end of life. She holds a master's degree in social work from Hunter College and has more than 20 years of experience working in hospice, skilled nursing and assisted living communities.

Lawless leads a workshop guiding employees through discussions about quality of life and caregiving. The next session of "It's Time to Talk" starts April 13. If you would like to schedule a virtual consultation for adult or elder care, contact her at elawless@arizona.edu. To learn more about opportunities to improve your wellness, join the Life & Work Connections email list.

A version of this article appeared on the Life & Work Connections website.

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