How Older Adults and Their Families Perceive Family Talk about Aging-Related EOL Issues: A Dialectical Analysis

Behav Sci (Basel). 2017 Apr 17;7(2):21. doi: 10.3390/bs7020021.


For older adults, approaching end-of-life (EOL) brings unique transitions related to family relationships. Unfortunately, most families greatly underestimate the need to discuss these difficult issues. For example, parents approaching EOL issues often struggle with receiving assistance from others, avoiding family conflict, and maintaining their sense of personhood. In addition, discussions of EOL issues force family members to face their parents' mortality, which can be particularly difficult for adult children to process emotionally. This study explored aging issues identified by aging parents and their families as they traverse these impending EOL changes. Ten focus groups of seniors (n = 65) were conducted. Focus groups were organized according to race (African-American/European-American), gender, and whether the older adult was living independently or in an assisted care facility. When asked open-ended questions about discussing aging and EOL issues with family members, participants revealed tensions that led us to consider Relational Dialectics Theory as a framework for analysis. The predominant tension highlighted in this report was certainty versus uncertainty, with the two sub-themes of sustained life versus sustained personhood and confronting versus avoiding EOL issues. For these data, there were more similarities than differences as a result of gender, race, or living situation than one might expect, although culture and financial status were found to be influential in the avoidance of EOL discussions. The results of this study help to provide additional insight into relational dialectics related to aging, EOL, and the importance of communication in facilitating family coping.

Keywords: aging; end-of-life (EOL); families; older adults (OA); relational dialectics theory (RDT).