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There’s No Good Time for the Talk

by Vincent Tilford, Executive Director

During Thanksgiving weekend, I had what I thought was a reasonable conversation with a relative who in so many words told me to mind my own business.

My uncle, who is eighty-one-years- old, lives alone. His wife died many years ago, and his closest blood relative is his niece, my wife. When we were visit- ing him this past holiday, he proudly showed me some of his home improvements that he had completed — a remodeled bathroom and a basement that he had turned into his “man cave.” Uncle has always been a wiz with his hands, so it was no surprise that he did all of that work.

My problem, and it’s clearly mine and not his, was that while walking the house admiring his handiwork everywhere I looked I saw hazards – a new 32-inch high soaker tub; bathrooms without grab bars, and looming stairways with loose carpeting on the steps and no handrails. When I rst visited him in the 1990s, I never thought about these things, but now they seem like death traps, at least for someone who’s isn’t as spry as he used to be. I’ve known him for nearly thirty years and have watched as time has bent his back and carved him into just skin and gristle. Less than ve and a half feet tall, he’s a small man who moves a little slower and more gingerly than he did ten years ago (but so do I).

I started the conversation with affirming statements.

“Love the man cave,” I said. “And that’s a sweet remodel that you did to the bathroom.” He nodded. Uncle was never one to show much emotion, but his lips turned up slightly into what I thought was a smile, so I eased into my concerns.

“You know, I had a hard time stepping into and out of your tub. It must be a challenge for you.”

“I manage,” he replied. Not hearing the warning in his voice and guring that my positive statements had softened him, I plowed ahead.

“Let me put up some grab bars for you before we go. I could also nail the carpet down on the stairs so that you don’t trip.”

“I don’t need grab bars; I have no problems getting into and out of the tub. And don’t worry about the carpet. I plan to have someone redo it in a couple of weeks.” He left me no openings; still, I laid out my arguments.

“We could take care of it now. It wouldn’t be a problem at all. Accidents are never planned. What if you fall when no one is around, and you can’t move? It could be days before someone checks on you.”

“I understand, but I’m ne.” And then he left the room.

My conversation with my uncle didn’t exactly go as planned, but I don’t regret having it. Talking with your loved ones about aging is hard and sometimes they aren’t receptive. Most of us equate getting older with becoming more frail and sickly. We fear losing our independence or that our health will take a downward spiral the moment we admit to ourselves and others that we need help. However, not talking about it leaves us all vulnerable to emotional, nancial and physical stresswhen a challenging situation arises and decisions have to be made about someone’s care.

Most caregivers and their care recipients whose life-changing events were sudden wish that they had had a plan to handle care sooner when everyone can be a full participant in the conversations about where and how will care be provided. What will it cost and what can we afford? What steps can we take to make it possible to live as long as possible in one’s home? Are there potential family caregivers who can afford the time and emotional energy needed for caregiving? What resources are available to support the caregiver and the recipient?

As we enter the holiday season, we should make plans to talk about our future and long-term care with our family and those who may be part of our care network. There’s never a perfect time to talk about long-term care and planning and it may be uncomfortable. But the cost of not doing so is far higher than any short-term discomfort.

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