Our clients often ask us for advice on how to talk to their loved ones about their healthcare. Recently, a client whose mother has early stages of dementia asked what the best way is for her to talk to her mother about her illness. Another client facing a potentially terminal illness has struggled to decide how to talk to his family about impending test results. These topics are sensitive, but talking about healthcare doesn’t have to be difficult. 

When we become aware of a loved one's unfortunate diagnosis, our emotions can run high which can make it hard to process information. There is no one way to handle these delicate situations, as everyone has a different way of dealing with upsetting news. Here are some guidelines to help ease the discussion about healthcare situations. 

  1. Ask and rely on medical professionals for guidance on how to talk to your loved ones.  Many experts are trained in having difficult discussions and can facilitate these conversations.
  2. When it comes to information, more is not always better. In this age of transparency, information is readily available - especially medical information. However, be careful with what you do with this extensive information. Try to understand how much information your loved one would be comfortable with.
  3. As a general rule, don’t give false hope, but don’t take it away, either. It is important to remain positive while also being realistic about the situation. Beverly Shenkman, an expert in psychology and rehabilitation counseling of 35 years and a senior advisor at Better Health Advisors, sites a good example of this. “A client of mine with stage 3 ovarian cancer, fearful of her prognosis, asked her oncologist what she could expect from her treatment. With hope and realism, he responded: ‘We are aiming for a cure.'"
  4. Be honest about your concerns, but use a normal, calm tone, says the National Center for Children and Families, and avoid interrupting your loved one as much as possible. 
  5. Use a similar approach in talking about substance abuse and mental illness as are used in discussing physical illnesses. Often these conversations can become more heated, but they don’t have to be confrontational. Lack of control can be a major issue in these circumstances, so involve the patient in treatment planning as much as possible.
  6. For children, sometimes a "need to know" approach works best. Consider the age and maturity of children in determining how much information to share.
  7. Use the whole team. Consider the best people to communicate delicate information, whether that be a primary care doctor or a close relative. “Sometimes this is an important consideration with a loved one demonstrating early signs of dementia”, says Ms. Shenkman. "For example, it may be far better to have the geriatrician explain to the patient that it is no longer safe to drive their car rather than having a family member take the car away due to safety concerns."
  8. Take it one step at a time. Sometimes it is less overwhelming to break large healthcare situations into smaller ones and consider each factor as it arises, or to prioritize issues so concerns are faced one at a time. 

For more tips on having difficult conversations, contact Better Health Advisors.