When raising children, we often try to shield them from problems and stress. We don't let them know that the mortgage is two months behind. We don't share our marital problems with them. And we do what we can to make sure they are happy, feel loved, and have the best chance to succeed in life.
Even when children become adults, many parents still hope to spare their child stress and worry. The relationship from day one was built on the parent taking care of the child - from changing diapers and teaching them to ride a bike to giving them career advice and helping them buy a home. Because a role reversal seems uncomfortable and odd, many parents refuse to look at their children - even if they are 50 years old - as adults they might be able to lean on. As a result, if a parent is experiencing a health problem or alarming symptoms, an adult child might be the last to know.
In this series by Executor.org, we look at issues and problems that could be happening in your parent's life that they are not telling you about and offer solutions to help manage these situations. As parents age, communication matters more than ever, and your ability to keep your parents talking as they encounter new problems will be critical as your role in their lives evolves.
Perhaps you've noticed that mom or dad is slowing down, looking more tired than usual and having trouble doing the things they used to do with ease. And you fear there is something more going on, that they might be ill. Or maybe your parent seems fine, but you realize you have no idea how their health is, when the last time they saw a doctor was, or if they are truly taking care of themselves. Here's three tips that can help you determine if your parent is ill and how to handle it if they are.
1. Ask direct questions. Yes, it seems very simple in theory, but can be hard to do. Not all adult children are close to their parents and some parents hold strong opinions on how their personal matters, including their health, should remain private. These barriers can make it difficult to even ask questions such as, "Mom, how's your health these days? How are you feeling?" But if you have concerns, rather than trying to sneak around on a fact-finding mission it can be easiest to go straight to the source. Just because your parent hasn't told you about any health problems directly doesn't mean they won't share the details when asked. Parents might want to spare their children upset and not share worrisome information. But most also do not want to lie to their children and will answer honestly when asked a question.
2. Spend more time with them. Life is busy and there are often days when we can't complete even half of our to-do list. So it is understandable if the time you spend with your parents is limited. But if you want them to feel comfortable telling you about what's going on in their lives, you might need to set aside more time to spend with them. Whether it's a scheduled visit every Tuesday evening or a one-hour phone call on Sundays, scheduling a time will help make sure your parent knows they aren't keeping you from something else and that they have the time to talk about what's on their mind. A friend of mine recently was shocked to learn his father was ill. He calls his retired dad nearly every day while he commutes to work and he could not believe his dad failed to mention the illness for more than eight months. When he asked his dad why he hadn't said anything until he was very sick, his dad stated he was waiting until they could have a longer talk than the usual two-minute check-in. That time always felt rushed, and he didn't like the idea of his son talking on the cell phone while driving. Some difficult conversations take time and we need a bit of small talk first before getting to them. This extra time also gives you a great chance to ask direct questions and get a better sense of how your parent is doing. Do they sound tired? Do they sound confused? Are they getting out for social activities and needed appointments? These are all things you can typically find out via basic conversations. You just need to allow the time so your parent doesn't feel rushed.
3. Be patient. In fairness, we all have the right to decide what we share with family and friends and what we keep private. Your parent likely has kept many things private from you over the years and perhaps keeping their health matters under wraps makes sense to them as well. But it's also possible that they need some time to deal with the diagnosis as well. Learning you have an illness can be shocking, particularly if it is life-threatening or requires a lifestyle change. They might need some time to process and accept the idea that their life is changing. It's a time of adjustment and acceptance and they might not be ready to talk about it with their children right away. So if you suspect an illness but they haven't mentioned anything and have denied being sick when you have asked, understand that they might just need some time. Being patient, available and occasionally re-asking them directly is your best bet for getting your parent to open up to you.
Most of us dread the day we will lose a parent so seeing them age and become ill can be very difficult. And most parents fear the idea of causing their children stress or grief. But if we can set aside the time, be patient and ask the right questions, we can better ensure our parents will open up about their illness and allow us to help.
Patrick O'Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, an online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The tool includes a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.