Home for the Holidays

Nov 27, 2013

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services; the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli Counties.  Tomorrow is the start of the holiday season, a time when many of us gather with family and friends, including parents and older loved ones who live far from us.  This can be a wonderful opportunity to have important conversations with them. Tonight I want to share some tips on having these conversations while you are home for the holidays.

I’ll never forget the first time it hit me that my parents were getting older. My father called to tell me my mother was going to have open heart surgery the next morning.  I freaked.  I flew home on the next available plane, arriving after the surgery was completed.  When I walked into the hospital room, my mother looked old and white.  I thought I would faint with the realization that she was, indeed, aging.  

Before this, every time I had visited home my mother went out of her way to make the special foods my siblings and I loved. She pampered us during our stays.  This visit, for the first time in my life, I had to go shopping to stock the house and make sure my father had support.  I was already in my 40s, but the realization that my parents were aging jolted me beyond words. 

Fortunately my siblings and I had many more years with my parents and the opportunity to have all the necessary conversations that I’m encouraging all of you to have.

With this in mind, the National Area Agency on Aging Association, known as N4A, annually launches a “Home for the Holidays” campaign.  Its purpose is to encourage spouses, parents, adult children and older adults to start having those important conversations that will help each other ensure their wishes will be honored as they age.  A national survey by the Conversation Project found that nine in 10 Americans want to discuss their own and their loved ones’ end-of-life care, but only three in 10 Americans have actually done it. While often difficult to initiate, these conversations are valuable and necessary for all involved. 

By discussing end-of-life issues for yourself or your loved ones, you take the first critical step to create a plan that accurately reflects your—or their-- wishes and prepares and engages those who you love.  But how do you broach these topics? 

Like most important things you do in life, preparation is the key.  Start by gathering your thoughts. Think about basic aspects of the conversation, like selecting a time to talk, picking a location, deciding who should be involved and listing the topics that are important to discuss.

Figuring out the best way to start the conversation can feel challenging.  Here are a few ice breakers that may help.  Simply say, “I need your help with something.” Or share a story about a person whose end-of-life didn’t go well for them or the family.  “I was thinking about what happened to Aunt Emma and it made me realize I don’t want that to happen to me.” Or take the approach of using yourself as an example by saying, “I just answered some questions about how I want the end-of-life to be.  I want to share my answers with you, and I’m wondering what your answers would be.”

Remember to be patient, nonjudgmental, and try to not control the conversation. Realize a first attempt may be the beginning of the conversation, not the end. 

Aside from end-of-life issues, there are many other important topics that need to be discussed. At the N4A website,, you can download a simple eight-page document titled “Let’s Talk; Starting the Conversation about Health, Legal, Financial and End-of-life Issues.”  If you need resources specific to the area where your parents or an older loved one lives, simply go to this site,, for the Eldercare Locator.  This search tool can connect you with any Area Agency on Aging in the country, where staff can help you find local resources. All you need to know is the zip code or city name and state.

I encourage you to begin—or continue—having these incredibly important conversations while a loved one is still enjoying life. Not only will it be easier, but you won’t want to be wondering about these things during a crisis situation. Think of the conversation as a cherished and enduring holiday gift that you can give to each other.

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services. Happy Holidays, safe travels and as always, thanks for listening.