Talk Frankly with Aging Parents about Healthcare


By Barb Berggoetz, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star

It’s 3 a.m., and your phone startles you out of a sound sleep.

Your 70-year-old mother has suffered a stroke. You rush to her house nearby to take her to the hospital.

But you’re not prepared. She’s incoherent. You forget the name of her primary care doctor and don’t know what medications she’s taking.

This may be an all-too-common scenario, as adult children struggle to take care of aging parents, and sometimes grandparents, and their often- complex medical needs.

Being a caregiver, even if it’s only part time or for emergencies, is challenging. When do you step in? How do you offer advice without being bossy? What can you do to help prevent emergencies? How do you best handle them when they happen?

“Preparing in advance really helps because it helps you to stay calm,” said Tamara Wolske, director of the Center for Aging and Community at the University of Indianapolis. “The more you prepare, the easier it will be to make things simple for yourself and your loved one in a crisis.”

Two years ago, Steve Carley’s aging mother didn’t share with him that she wasn’t feeling well. Sara Carley, then 94, ended up in the hospital and rehab for a couple of weeks and then a nursing home — which none of them wanted.

The answer for them was hiring a caregiver with Home Instead Senior Care, a national firm that provides services to seniors to help them remain home.

A caregiver comes every morning and returns in late afternoon. The caregiver cooks, cleans, handles personal care and makes sure Sara Carley takes her medications, which Steve’s brother sets out weekly. The caregiver logs the elderly woman’s daily activities and physical condition and keeps her medical information up to date.

“It has worked very well for us,” Steve said. “If she has a medical problem, they alert my brother and I, and we get her care.”

The Carleys were able to find a solution, but ideally it is best to have regular, frank conversations with a parent about medical issues before an emergency occurs.

Adult children should be aware of key medical information and know how to access it quickly. They need to have a list of the parent’s prescriptions, allergies, physicians and contact information and the parent’s pharmacy.

Senior emergency kits, such as the one offered free online by Home Instead Senior Care (, can provide resources and tracking sheets.

“A lot of the information is very critical to their immediate care,” said Georgette Smith, franchise owner of Home Instead Senior Care.

The challenge, says Christopher Callahan, director of the Indiana University Center for Aging and Research, is keeping information updated because medications and health-care providers, for example, change frequently.

Key information, such as medications and doctors’ names, can be kept on the refrigerator door or the back of the front door — where ambulance personnel can easily see it. Adult children should collect the information from parents.

Callahan suggests asking them broad questions about their goals of care, such as if they would undergo certain emergency procedures, and their advance directives in case of life-threatening conditions.

The right time to broach medical issues varies, depending on the aging parent’s health.

“We usually say when the child reaches age 40 or the parent reaches 70, whichever one happens first, that’s a good time to talk about what the senior’s wishes are and to get an emergency kit in place,” Smith said. If a senior is in poor health, she said, it could be done when he or she is in his or her 50s or 60s.

Seniors are usually willing to share such information, but not always.

Callahan advises that adult children say they need to know family medical history so they can get cancer screenings. Then they can ease into conversations about the parent’s medical issues.

Adult children also need to make clear they’re asking questions and collecting information because they care about their parents’ well-being and want to handle emergencies well and try to prevent them.

The tone, though, needs to be conversational, says Wolske. It shouldn’t sound like an interrogation.

Photo of Barb Berggoetz, Health & Fitness writter for The Indianapolis Star

Barb Berggoetz is the Health and Fitness writer for The Indianapolis Star. She can be reached by email or by phone at (317) 444-6294.