‘The Hard Questions’

Author Susan Piver helps guide readers in learning to cope with aging parents.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   Even with the societal acceptance of psychoanalysis and family therapy, as well as the growth of hospice and end-of-life care, we rarely want to discuss death — especially that of our parents.
   Yet, denying that inevitability and postponing the important conversations can lead to emotional trauma and material chaos. For example, one parent may pass away and the other doesn’t have a clue about finances, wills and other legal documents.
   Author Susan Piver has put together a book that doesn’t contain answers, but is filled with the kind of questions we might want to ask our loved ones. With The Hard Questions for Adult Children and their Aging Parents: Facing the Future Together with Courage and Compassion (Gotham, $15), Ms. Piver offers her wisdom and insight to anyone who must confront the process of caring for elderly parents.
   Ms. Piver will be at Robert Wood Johnson’s Center for Health and Wellness in Hamilton Jan. 13 to talk about the issues presented in her latest book, the third in a series of best-selling tomes centered around "hard questions."
   "How can we find the courage to contemplate the death of our parents?" she writes. "How can we best accompany them as they age?" These are just a couple of her own personal questions that sparked the book.
   "I started thinking about this when my family began planning my father’s 80th birthday party," she says, speaking from her home in Boston. "You can’t do this without thinking about the next and the next and hopefully the next. Even though my father is 82 and my mother is 75, I’m unwilling to admit that they’re going to die. I was afraid that my fear would prevent me from being loving and supporting to them."
   Ms. Piver says she’s seen friends who have lost a parent, or have watched them become gravely ill, and has seen the relationship change — it becomes too intense and then the hard conversations are really put on the back burner.
   One of the problems is that many parents still maintain the attitude "I’m the parent and you’re the child and I’ll make my own decisions." Their independence is to be applauded, but Ms. Piver says it’s important to talk about this with older parents. Since people are living so much longer, the time will come when they might not be able to take care of themselves the way they have been used to — physically, financially or emotionally.
   "Then the children step in and take care," she says. "There’s a period of time when it switches. If you’re unaware or unwilling to acknowledge this, you might be unable to take care of each other.
   "What could be a more difficult conversation than this?" she continues. "You can always find some reason to put it off. But having it when everyone is healthy — the least likely time to so do — is a huge advantage. It’s just so much better."
   The book helps adult children open up and communicate about serious issues before it’s too late and they become overwhelmed. Although it’s a different circumstance, think of the Terri Schiavo case and how that might have been changed if the parents and adult child had asked some "hard questions."
   "Some answers to these questions emerge when we begin considering what is likely to happen if we don’t think or talk with our parents about their aging and death," Ms. Piver writes. "There are consequences ranging from the practical… to the emotional… to the spiritual. Ignoring these issues out of fear, denial or procrastination can set us up to miss both our own and our parents’ needs, hopes, fears and longings."
   Families will vary about what subject matter makes them most uncomfortable. For Ms. Piver’s folks, it was finances. She says people of an older generation simply didn’t discuss money.
   "For people like this, try to find out the basics such as, do they have a will?" she says. "If so, where is it? Do they have any thoughts or feelings about prolonging life under certain circumstances? Have they designated someone to make health care decisions for them?"
   She says she tried the questions out on her parents as she was writing, even took them on a leg of a book tour in Florida, where they played "Q&A" on the road.
   "They’re very supportive of this and very open," Ms. Piver says. "As we talked we both learned so much. We laughed, we told stories, we remembered things and made jokes. It was very sweet. And when it was over, my mother always said, ‘It wasn’t a bummer.’
   "Almost everyone I know who has taken this chance describes something similar," she continues. "Sometimes it’s the other way around — parents want to have these dialogues with children who don’t. Just try just a few questions and see. It usually turns out to be a good thing."
   Ms. Piver is also the author of The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say ‘I Do,’ (Jeremy Tarcher, 2000) and The Hard Questions for an Authentic Life (2004). She’s worked in the entertainment industry as a writer, producer and marketing specialist and has been featured on Oprah and the Today show. She also is the founder and creative director of Padma Media, producing book packages for best-selling authors.
   She says beyond all the practical reasons, there is also a spiritual consideration for talking with our parents about life and death.
   "Whether the relationship is emotionally healthy or unhealthy," Ms. Piver writes, "…asking these questions is every child’s opportunity to, in some way, honor his or her parents for the gift of life given."
Susan Piver will discuss The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton’s Center for Health and Wellness, 3100 Quakerbridge Road, Hamilton, Jan. 13, 7 p.m. Tickets cost $15. Sponsored by The Friends’ Health Connection. For information, call (800) 483-7436. On the Web: www.friendshealthconnection.org. Susan Piver on the Web: www.thehardquestions.com