Ask Helen: Help mom plan for future before crisis

Dear Helen:

I’m terrified. I’m headed to Detroit tomorrow to have “The Talk” with my 82-year-old mother. She’s lived independently/semi-independently her entire life. My father died when she was 50. For the last 10 years my youngest sister has been living with her, making sure Mom took her meds, driving her to appointments (Mom turned in her own license when she felt unsafe!) and generally being around so none of us had to fear every ring of the phone. But now she’s ready for her own life. Mom is intelligent, spry and relatively healthy. Other than not driving, she is very self-sufficient. But I know that could change in a minute, and I live 2,000 miles away, as does everyone except my sister. How can I have The Talk (which every child and parent dreads) about preparing for the inevitable living-in-a-group setting, so we don’t have to make rushed or bad decisions in a time of crisis?


Dear Eeek:

There’s no easy way for this one. Everyone dreads it, no matter which side of the conversation equation they are on. And if she knows your sister is planning on moving out, you know she also knows, and likely fears, that The Talk is part of your visit. So she may be apprehensive, even if she does her maternal best to hide it. Start out by having as good a visit as you can, at least for the first day or two. Come from the airport with flowers and plan to take her out for a special one-on-one dinner. Try to assess how she’s doing without making her feel like she’s under the microscope. Even if she knows the conversation is looming, she will be on her best behavior. But don’t be surprised if tears follow. It is going to be hard, but it is important and necessary.

Take the role of her advocate, as in: “Mom, how do you want to handle the future? What’s your idea of the best and safest way for you to live after (sister’s name) moves out?” Then listen. Don’t confront her, and try to avoid pushing her into a place of resistance. She might surprise you by saying she is ready, or that she knows a move is inevitable. Most likely she will argue that it should be deferred. Listen to her arguments one by one; see what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Ask her if she’ll come with you to one or two of the closest and best assisted-living facilities that perhaps, God willing, one or more of her friends is already living in. Help her see the better points about them and also help her recognize that if she has a health crisis she could end up somewhere far less optimal, and that planning is a far better process than making a bad decision later.

You have a lot of homework to do to pull off the eventual transition. Your local sister will be a big help in getting the house packed up and de-cluttered. But you need to carefully assess financial resources, weigh options and learn about waiting lists and options should her health decline. There’s a big difference between independent-living-only situations and a facility that offers progressive options when your mother’s health begins to fail. Assume that this process will take three to six months to do well, including for a vacancy to open in her place of choice, which you should pounce on if it does. Keep your sister involved. Most important, make sure your mother knows you love her, and that this is about keeping her safe and healthy for as long as possible. The Talk should focus on care, not punishment. Good luck.

P.S. I’m reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I strongly recommend it and using the issues it addresses so eloquently as the basis for conversations with loved ones of all ages.

A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen is a member of Temple Beth Israel, where she studies and speaks on Torah. She claims to have black belts in schmoozing, problem solving and chutzpah. She’s a writer and an artist ( Please email your questions to

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