Gateway: Opinion

Commentary: Father’s Day is an opportunity to ask dad about his health

With Father’s Day coming up, many of us are looking forward to this day of celebration when we can express our love and gratitude for all that Dad has done for us over a lifetime. Those of us with fathers in their golden years may find that Father’s Day becomes more poignant with each passing year, as the person we have always depended on now turns to us more and more often for help and support.

As the dynamic between parent and child shifts, it can sometimes be difficult to talk with our fathers about the new challenges that arise with aging. Whether we talk with our fathers in person or by phone or Skype, our conversations often dance around difficult subjects — or we may avoid them altogether, figuring that we can wait until we find the “right time” to talk. But as some of us learn the hard way, if we keep waiting for the right moment, sometimes it’s too late.

This Father’s Day I want to encourage everyone with aging fathers to consider using some of that special time with Dad to ask him about his health. Perhaps you have a father who is already very open with you about his health and keeps you regularly updated. But if your dad is like mine, and I think many probably are, he tends to be reserved about discussing his health issues and concerns, figuring it’s better “not to worry the kids.”

But sometimes we “kids” want to know and need to know — certainly because we care about our dads’ well-being but also because many of us will end up as caregivers for our aging parents. In my own case, I saw my father’s health suddenly change, seemingly overnight, as he went from being very active and independent all his life to nearly bedridden and highly dependent on caregivers. This can happen to any of us.

Let’s resolve to use some of our time on Father’s Day to ask our dads about their health. If you anticipate this may be difficult, here are a few tips that may help get the conversation started.

▪ Plan ahead

Think about how and when you want to start the conversation with your dad. For example, you might want to find time — or make time — when you can speak with him one-on-one rather than with the whole family present.

▪ Come prepared

Do some homework on the kind of health issues that often arise for men his age. Here are some resources. Think of questions you’d like to ask your dad, such as: How recently has he seen a doctor? What did the doctor say about his health? Is he having any problems with his medications?

▪ Show empathy

Going into the conversation, try to put yourself in your dad’s shoes and think about how he might feel about sharing information about his health with you. Be aware that health can be a sensitive issue for many people, one that often brings up fears about loss of privacy and autonomy.

▪ Be encouraging

Use the conversation as an opportunity to encourage your dad to be proactive about his health, such as getting regular check-ups and health screenings. A little encouragement can go a long way. Check here for a list of common health screenings for men.

▪ Re-assess your approach, if needed

It’s possible that your father simply will not want to talk about his health when you approach him. If that happens, back off and consider taking a different tack. Perhaps he would be more willing to have a conversation about his health by email rather than in person or by phone. Or he might be more responsive to just one or two questions at a time rather than an extended conversation.

We all want to be there for our dads when they need us. Part of “being there” is being willing to initiate this kind of conversation with them, no matter how awkward or unwelcome it may seem, at least at first.

And who knows? Our dads may actually surprise us and respond more willingly than we ever could have predicted. Maybe it’s they who have been waiting for us to signal our willingness to talk — and even more importantly, to listen.

I wish you a very happy Father’s Day.

Gig Harbor resident Catherine Field is intermountain president for senior products at Federal Way-based Humana.

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