Taboo Topics: 5 Essential Questions for Your Aging Parents This Thanksgiving

thanksgiving dinner

Forget politics. Talk about something that may invoke gratitude and nostalgia with your family this Thanksgiving weekend instead of frustration.

According to a survey by Capital Senior Living, 36% of “Baby Boomers” feel unprepared to start caring for their parents. This number is expected to rise in the coming years, as people are living longer and having children later in life.

The uncomfortable ‘role-reversal’ conversation may seem distressing at first, but the consequences of not having it can be far more challenging in the long-run. If framed as a check-in not calling for confrontation, it can actually feel cathartic.

If you haven’t yet had the “The Talk” with your parents, here are some starter conversation topics for the Thanksgiving Table:

1. “Where do you want to retire?”

This is a non-invasive way to get your loved ones to start talking about where they envision themselves in the future. Keep it light. Ask about what kind of climate they find suitable and how important it is to remain close to friends and family. It’s designed as an icebreaker to get them comfortable by visualizing the years ahead.

2. “What kind of home do you want to live in?”

While most seniors prefer to age at-home because they value familiarity and independence, others prefer the convenience of additional support they might find in senior communities. Having them clarify the residence they foresee may even spark a philosophical discussion on what “home” feels like to them.

3. ”Do you feel prepared for the years ahead?”

Americans are increasingly choosing to retire later. Some make the choice because they want to continue working, while others have to keep working to make retiring financially-feasible. Asking whether they feel prepared for the years ahead could unearth positive sentiments towards areas they feel like they have fully-covered. For example, they may disclose some of their existing savings, investments, or insurance premiums that make them feel confident they have some of at least some components of their plan in place.

4. “Do you have any concerns about the future?”

This segue is meant to start directing the conversation towards some of the more challenging topics, including financial worries, health problems, and inevitably, death. If they don’t already, it might also be a good time to ask if they’ve completed their Will, Durable Power of Attorney, and other critical legal documents.

5. “How do you want to go someday?”

A study published last year uncovered that only about one in three have any type of “Advanced Directives” in-place, which spell out your loved one’s wishes in the event of incapacitation or terminal illness. During a difficult situation, the last order any family member wants to make is one that goes against their loved one’s preferences. As such, it is essential to have the document, but it can only be drafted if your parent’s desires are known.

Bonus: “How do you want to be remembered?”

Over the past couple years, there was a trend emerging in South Korea that facilitated mock funeral services. While asking your parents to lay in their coffin is certainly an unnecessarily provocative Thanksgiving faux pas, getting them to reflect on their lives and helping them come to terms with their unavoidable passing might bring solace. As stated in Bronnie Ware’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, one of those is possessing the courage to express their feelings. If framed positively, this could serve as an empowering moment and help them express their gratitude in areas you or they had previously taken for granted.

Although these are difficult conversations to have, they are likely easier than the ones, say, about the election results. And unlike talking politics at the dinner table, these conversations won’t be destructive to your family’s long-term happiness. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Barbara Brown holds a master's degree in Interdisciplinary Gerontology from Bowling Green State University. She is passionate about improving the lives of older adults and helping them to thrive.