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How to Talk to Loved Ones About Their Illness

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

By Rosanne Burke

Talking to a loved one about his or her illness may not be easy but it is important. It will help you understand what matters most to them and how you can support them.

Before you start a conversation, think about what you would like to talk about, and when and where you want to talk. Choose a time and location that will make everyone feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible.

To begin, ask the person how they are doing. Give them the opportunity to speak first and to share how they are feeling. You may be surprised to learn that they are okay with their illness or condition. They may have come to terms with what is happening. On the other hand, they may be grappling to understand and may feel very anxious or depressed.

If the person seems hesitant to talk, ask them what their understanding is of their illness, and share what you understand. It may be a very confusing time for the person and everyone close to them. It will be helpful if everyone has the same information and there are no misunderstandings about the diagnosis. If there are questions, write them down and offer to attend medical appointments to help your loved one get the answers they need.

Find out what the person’s goals are that might affect healthcare decisions. If it is a terminal illness, maybe the person wants to live long enough to meet a new grandchild or to celebrate their next birthday or to see a relative one last time. Some things will be beyond your control but be creative and think outside the box. Determine what is feasible and what you can do to help them achieve their goals. Can you have an early birthday celebration or pool your money together to fly someone home?

If the illness is not terminal, goals will still be important. Maybe this will be a wake-up call for the person to live life fully and on their terms. They may want to come up with a bucket list of activities they want to do! Is the condition expected to get worse over time? Encourage them to act on their goals sooner rather than later.

Ask the person about their fears. What do they worry about? They may express concerns about having to leave their home, not being able to make decisions for themselves, having to ask others for help with basic needs, or being in pain. They may fear losing skills and abilities, not being able to do certain things or losing their independence.

Suggest that they put their wishes in writing for what they want down the road. If they want to stay in their home, what can be done to help facilitate that? If they require help with personal care, who do they want to help them? Some people would feel embarrassed to have a spouse give them a shower but feel okay if their daughter provides care. As a caregiver, express how you would feel about performing certain tasks. If there is something that you are not comfortable doing, it is important to voice your concerns as well.

At the end of the conversation, acknowledge the difficulty of the situation and that it isn’t an easy conversation to have. Reassure the person that you want to know about their wishes and concerns, so you can help find the best solutions. Keep the door to communication open and plan to talk again as the person’s situation or wishes may change.

If you have questions about an elderly loved one’s care, Takacs McGinnis Elder Care Law may be able to help. Just give us a call at 615.824.2571.


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