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'Start talking about it' | What you need to know as your loved ones grow older

According to Census data, seniors are expected to outnumber their children by 2034, and experts say it's never too early to talk to parents about the future.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Not too many people want to talk about death, especially when it comes to people they love, but Dr. Carol Robinson is glad she did.

"I mean we’ve had a lot of good laughs in my family about different things because people could joke because they weren’t in the middle of a crisis," she said.

Robinson knew at age 4 that she wanted to be a nurse. She has since earned a doctorate in nursing practice, and she's provided end-of-life care for her father, mother, mother-in-law, uncle and a friend all within just nine years. You could argue that there's no one better equipped than her to take care of someone. But she's still just one person.

"Because of my qualifications, I know I can’t do it all," she said.

Robinson has turned to the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan on a number of occasions when she needed help taking care of a loved one.

"They’ve just been a godsend," she said.

The agency describes itself as a one stop shop for seniors, and they can help caregivers provide for those seniors. 13 ON YOUR SIDE asked the agency what are the three most helpful resources that caregivers often don't know are available to them. Sarah Sobel, contract administrator of caregiver services, listed the following:

  1. The Kent County Senior Millage: This is a taxpayer-funded program in Kent County aimed at helping seniors stay in their own homes. It helps pay for whatever seniors might need to accomplish that, such as bath services, yard work and home maintenance.
  2. Care Management: This service allows a nurse or social worker to figure out what help seniors really need, which can be especially helpful for new caregivers.
  3. Caregiver services: Sobel says caregiving can be difficult and isolating and it can be helpful to network with other caregivers. The agency offers support groups and classes so caregivers to do that.

The Area Agency on Aging provides a number of other resources, and they are able to connect seniors and caregivers with other services that they can't provide. On their website, you can search for services your loved one needs and you can narrow that search by county.

No matter what services you use, both Robinson and Sobel agree that thinking about what's ahead and talking about the future with your loved ones are part of an important first step.

"It’s never too early to start a plan, and it’s never too early to start conversations," Sobel said.

"I think we have such a stigma of talking about death or talking about care that if we’re talking about it, it’s going to happen tomorrow, but that’s not the case."

Robinson says in all five cases when she provided end-of-life service, she was able to use those conversations to make sure her loved ones died the way they wanted. She's also seen what happens when those conversations are not had.

"What we’ve seen for decades in the hospital is that when a parent is critically ill, sometimes the kids don’t agree on what’s going on because the haven’t had these conversations," she said.

Those disagreements can lead to crisis and even rip families apart.

"There are some wonderful things on the web that are free. One of them is The Conversation Project. It’s got these guides where you can talk to your loved ones about all sorts of questions," Robinson said.

Robinson and Sobel also agree that caregivers need to look out for themselves as their loved ones grow older.

"It’s easy to get caught up in all of it, especially when you’re just so busy with your work, your family and everything. But whatever you can do to take care of you, you need to do that too because you need the emotional and physical health for the long haul," Robinson said.

While conversations about death can seem morbid, Robinson says they don't always have to be, and that providing end-of-life care can be very rewarding.

"I think it can be a very beautiful thing to be with people at the end of their life. I think they can share a lot of wisdom and it’s just a privilege to be part of it."

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