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Families in All Shapes, Sizes, and Ages Need Clear, Caring Communication


Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, LCSW-C, CSP, is the author of “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One,” a speaker on senior living issues, and an instructor with Johns Hopkins University’s Certificate on Aging program.

Her firm, Jenerations Health Education, Inc., provides continuing education to health care workers in all areas and caregiver education, and she specializes in intergenerational and family communications.

This has been edited from a longer email interview.

Q. What are the biggest changes you identify in terms of family composition and aging in the older adult population over the past five years?
A. The Supreme Court ruling back in 2015 requiring all states to grant same-sex marriages has impacted many families. While not every LGBTQ couple opted to marry, the fact that they have this option has influenced the way we all see families.

Even prior to 2015, more LGBTQ couples have had children than in prior decades, so we will see more adult family caregivers for this population in the upcoming decades.

More older adults—who may have previously been close-minded about different kinds of families—have attended weddings of their kids and grandchildren who married same sex-partners. Many LGBTQ older adults have gotten married themselves!

Also, many LGBTQ older adults are now more comfortable being out to their families and to senior living staff. For so many decades, older adults often went back in the closet if they needed care later in life, so we are seeing more transparency in senior living.

Pop culture has also had an impact on the way we are seeing aging persons in families as well. For example, Grace and Frankie, the Netflix series starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, has reinforced the idea that close friends can be just as important as family members in helping you get through the aging process. Modern Family’s 11-year run as an ABC network series normalized LGBTQ marriage and parenting as well as persons of different cultures being part of one intergenerational family unit.

Q. As we gradually move out of the pandemic, what are some approaches that can help us serve residents’ changing families?
A. I strongly suspect that mental health conditions will soar for many residents, family members, and staff. In particular, delayed anxiety symptoms are likely to appear.

While many families and residents are angry about restrictions, I think some are ultimately going to experience symptoms of agoraphobia.

It’s crucial for senior living communities to monitor and prepare for this: Ensuring efficient visiting mental health services, reducing stigma, and offering support groups for residents and families are a few solutions.

Senior living professionals need to be prepared that there may be a lack of trust from many residents and family members. Many of the rules and regulations have appeared arbitrary to them. Nationally and locally, multiple changing pandemic recommendations times have eroded trust.

In the next couple of years, being prepared to explain the why of a rule or regulation is likely going to continue to be important.

Q. What are some habits practices for good communication among multiple generations and new family structures?
A. Written communication continues to be very important to our oldest generations. Texts and e-mail thank-you notes and cards are nice, but it helps to make the effort to send greetings via a hand-written note. Many older family members are offended by what they see as a lack of manners among younger people when this is not observed.

A great way to bridge the generational gap in families is for the youngest family members to help the older ones with technology.

And don’t underestimate the power of a phone call for our oldest generations. Many older adults are still more comfortable on the phone than using Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype.