Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m terrified. I’m headed to Detroit tomorrow to have The Talk with my
82-year- old mother. She’s lived independently or semi-independently
her entire life. My father died when she was 50. For the last 10 years
my youngest sister has been living with her, but she’s ready to move
out and make her own life. My sister’s been a safety net for all of us,
making sure her mom took her meds, driving her to appointments
(Mom turned in her own license when she felt unsafe!) and generally
being around so none of us had to fear every ring of the phone. Mom
is intelligent, spry, and relatively healthy. Other than the fact that she
can’t drive she is very self-sufficient. But I know that could change in a
minute, and I live two thousand miles away, as does everyone except
my sister. How can I have The Talk, which every child dreads having
to have, to prepare for the inevitable living-in- a-group- setting, so we
don’t have to make rushed or bad decisions in a time of crisis?


Dear Eeek:

There’s no easy way for this one. Everyone dreads it, no matter which
side of the conversation equation they are on. And if she knows your
sister is planning on moving out, you know she knows that The Talk is
part of your visit. So she will likely be apprehensive and afraid, even if
she does her maternal best to hide it. Start out having as good and
casual a visit as you can, at least for the first day or two. Come from
the airport with flowers and plan to take her out for a special one-on-
one dinner. Try to assess how she’s doing without making her feel like
she’s under the microscope. Even if she knows the conversation is
inevitable and looming, she will be on her best behavior. But don’t be
surprised if tears follow. It is going to be hard, but it is important and
necessary to do.

Take the role of her advocate, as in: Mom, how do you want to handle
the future? What’s your idea of the best and safest way for you to live
after [sister name] moves out? Then listen. Don’t confront her, and
avoid pushing her into a place of resistance. She might surprise you by
saying she is ready, or that she knows a move is inevitable. Most likely
she will argue that it should be deferred. Listen to her arguments one
by one; see what makes sense and what doesn’t. Ask her if she’ll
come with you to one or two of the closest and best assisted-living
facilities that perhaps, God willing, one or more of her friends is
already living in. Help her see the better points about them and also
help her recognize that if she has a health crisis she could end up
somewhere far less optimal, and that planning is a far better process
than making a bad decision later.

You have a lot of homework to do to pull off the eventual transition.
Your local sister will be a big help in getting the house packed up and
decluttered. But you need to carefully assess financial resources,
weigh options, and learn about waiting lists and long-term treatment
options. There’s a big difference between an independent living
situation, and a facility that offer progressive “step-down” options
when your mother begins to fail. Assume that this process will take
three to six months and try to work with your local sister to keep her
involved. But the nest thing you can do is to make sure your mother
knows you love her, and that this is about keeping her safe and
healthy for as long as possible. The Talk should focus on care, not
punishment. Good luck.