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Facing aging: Families avoid crucial conversations

| Thursday, March 27, 2008

Twila Young knows exactly where she wants to live when she's no longer able to stay at home. She knows how her estate should be divided and which funeral home she wants.

Young, 70, of New Sewickley in Beaver County has thoroughly discussed aging with her husband and children. "There are so many things that people don't talk about that eventually might cause lot of problems," she said.

For many people, talking to aging parents about health or finances, how long they should keep driving or where they should live -- and for how much longer -- is a dreaded conversation.

"I have friends who don't want to face what is inevitable. As a rule, no one wants to think of the day that they bury their parents," said Young's daughter, Barb Young, 45, of New Sewickley

More often than not, conversations about aging never take place at all, making caring for aging parents more complicated, an advocate said.

"Most adult children do not discuss something with their parents until it's sometimes too late," said Tim Lyon, the owner of the Zelienople franchise of Home Instead Senior Care, an Omaha-based national elder care company with eight branches in the Pittsburgh area.

The company advocates what is called the "40-70 Rule." The needed conversations should start, Lyon and other experts say, when a child is at least 40 and the parent is 70.

To encourage parents and their children to be more open about aging, the company has developed seminars and talking points to make it easier to approach parents.

"In many cases, little planning is done with parents. Having your parents understand that you are not a child is a difficult transition," said David Baron, owner of the Home Instead Senior Care franchises in Brentwood and Greensburg.

Baron, whose 73-year-old mother lives in Milwaukee, is facing the issue himself.

"She is in the house that she bought in 1960, and does not want to leave. She is overweight. She has fallen down before, and it's taken an hour for her to get up," he said. "These are never easy conversations to have."

To encourage better communication, the company conducted a survey of 1,500 U.S. and Canadian baby boomers about the relationships they have with their parents.

At least a third of the survey participants said they never have discussed aging with their parents, said Matt Thornhill, founder and president of the Richmond, Va.-based Boomer Project, a marketing research and consulting firm that analyzed the survey's data.

"For a lot of people, aging is never discussed until there is a crisis -- when Dad breaks a hip or when Mom drives through a stop sign," Thornhill said.

One key question in the survey asks whether the parent-child relationship is an obstacle. "If they said yes to that question, it pretty much followed that they had trouble talking with their parents," Thornhill said.

Twila Young, the former owner of a large ceramics business for 20 years and the wife of a business owner, said being in business forced the couple to be pragmatic.

"When you are in business, you have to plan. My husband, who owns an excavating company, was hit by a truck 15 years ago and was off for one full summer. He had not planned, and that is what started our planning," she said.

Still, she said she has many friends who refuse to face aging at all. "Many people are afraid of dying. I know people who do not even want to talk about what funeral home they want to go to."

The impasse between aging parents and their children comes as no surprise to Jake Harwood, a communications professor at the University of Arizona, who says that discussions about aging often turn into arguments.

"It's is a difficult topic, especially when the subject is health. Health is always sort of a taboo subject," said Harwood, who prepared a guide for Home Instead Senior Care that outlines approaches to discussing uncomfortable subjects. "Even middle-aged husbands and wives often will not tell each other about health problems until it's serious.

"The discussions are usually about restraining autonomy, giving up driving and not being able to live independently, which are serious threats to people," Harwood said. "It's best to address some of these problems in increments -- suggesting giving up driving at night instead of taking away the car keys."

Some parents, like Susan Smoyer, 54, of Baldwin Borough have planned far ahead. She has discussed old age with her son James, 18.

"We have long-term insurance. I don't want him to be forced into what we are doing with my mother," said Smoyer, a Shaler Area school teacher whose mother, Gertrude Pendergast, 89, lives with the family.

"My mother fell and fractured her pelvis, so there was no choice," Smoyer. "She does not want to be in a nursing home, which is OK with us, but might not be for everyone."

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