There has been quite a surge of search terms relating to ‘losing elderly parents’ over the last few weeks and I’m more than conscious that many grown-up children may well be ‘going home’ for Christmas to visit parents who are close to death.
A question that someone wrote that brought him/her to this blog was: What to say to an elderly parent who is dying?’
I’ve been thinking a good deal about this over the last day or two and from my reading of the literature, as well as from personal experience, it would seem best to take one’s lead from the parent who is dying.
There is quite a large literature about ‘awareness contexts’ in relation to dying ~ a phrase coined by Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser in 1965. I was fortunate to study under Anselm Strauss in the University of California in San Francisco and I was very struck by the complexities which he identified in relation to interaction with people who are dying. For example, some people may know they are dying and be happy to talk about it while others may know they are dying but want to carry on as if death was not on their agenda. There are lots of different permutations.
Much more recently, I attended a workshop given by Kenneth Doka, who has written extensively about death and dying. He made the point, that resonated very strongly with my own personal experience, that people who are dying can shift from wanting, to not wanting, to talk about their mortality. These changes can occur even within a single conversation.
So overall, I think that we have to respect the wishes of the parent who is dying . It is important to: 1. Seek clarification from the medical team if the elderly person has been told their prognosis; 2. Listen carefully to what the elderly person has to say and be receptive to cues that they wish to talk/or not talk about dying; 3. Be cognisant that everyone is different in how they deal with dying. For example, some people may find it easier to talk to a stranger than to a loved one while others may want to confide only in loved ones; and others may not wish to talk about dying to anyone at any stage.
Arguably, it is easier if there is openness all round but I think that such openness may be more the exception than the norm.