In my recent book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide, I described the reluctance of Millennials to speak with their Boomer parents about life transitions like downsizing dwellings, illness, and death. Unsurprisingly, Millennials were as eager to talk about these issues as their Boomer parents were to listen! Millennials assumed their parents had left written plans about emergency medical situations, and Boomer parents acted as if they wouldn’t age despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
But COVID-19 makes having conversations about illness, hospitalizations, and death ahead of when they might happen more urgent. If older adults contract COVID-19, they are at higher risk for complications and hospitalizations. While many younger people will not be symptomatic or will have milder symptoms, some will still need to plan for help when they feel sick and weak for an extended time.
Well before COVID-19, parents and children tacitly agreed to avoid discussions about transitions involving work, health, and finances until some upheaval triggered a discussion. They treated these conversations like a manufacturing process that Toyota pioneered to improve productivity called “just-in-time.” “Just-in-time” meant making “only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed.”
But people aren’t auto parts and waiting to have “just-in-time” conversations about sensitive issues is a mistake. These conversations are delicate and emotional. They require practice. Ideally, they work best when family members have had conversations about their values and what matters most to them at each stage of life. Issues about change and loss flow more smoothly when family members regularly speak about what they value.
So what can you do? Replace “just-in-time” conversations with “ahead-of-time” conversations. Become literate with legal and financial tools that enable family discussions about medical and legal choices. If parents and children have strained relationships, vet a few neutral third-party experts like therapists, mediators, and attorneys who can help guide difficult discussions (suggestion: do not use other family members to facilitate these conversations). In my book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide, you’ll also find a guide to help navigate conversations about health care and other significant among grandparents, parents, and older adult children. It’s intimidating at first to have these conversations. But you’ll often find that family members have been thinking about them already and are grateful to share them finally.