You might be planning to spend money on a new tie or comfy slippers for Father's Day and while gifts are good, quality time and meaningful conversations are even better.
Think about the last time you had a chat with just your dad—no distractions. Have you ever called home and asked specifically for your father? Although some dads are notorious for two-minute conversations or dodging calls entirely—which may be why many adult children end up talking to Mom most often—that intentional connection is worth pursuing.
Take him to his favorite restaurant, go for a walk or to a sporting event, or work side-by-side on a project in his garage or studio. The venue is not quite as important as the conversation and time spent together. If you can't visit in person, set up a time to Skype, FaceTime, or just talk voice to voice.
What to Talk About
So once you've arranged a date with Dad, what will you say? Start by spending some time discussing his legacy.
Do you know how your parents met? Do your kids know what Grandpa's first job was? What words of wisdom would you love to hear from your father?
"By leaving a written or video legacy, older people are giving their families a gift beyond price," says Karl Pillemer, author of 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. Pillemer is also the Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. "Relatives in current and future generations will find that the 'roadmap for life' their elders provide can help them take a new look at their own situations and choose new ways of living that will make them happier."
But some fathers need to be persuaded to talk about themselves or share their history.
"A good way to get the ball rolling is to begin with a life course review—you can even get the elder to create a time line with the major events he or she experienced," says Pillemer. He also suggests starting a legacy conversation by coming up with a list of questions your father can consider in advance, or to ask: "As you look back over your life, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned that you would like to pass on to future generations?"
While there are a number of tech tools available to gather and compile these stories (the StoryCorps app, StoryCatcher app, and LegacyStories website/software are all solid options), Pillemer advocates the use of a digital recorder or cell phone videos followed by transcription. "Getting them down is what's important – not being fancy."
Get Real With Talk
Dating isn't always easy. Even when you're dating a future partner, it can involve tough conversations. Perhaps your mother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Maybe your parents are struggling with home maintenance and wishing to downsize, or retirement isn't what your father imagined. Whatever the situation, take the opportunity to chat about their current status and future plans: How is Mom really doing, and how are you coping with the prospect of being her caregiver? Have you considered different living options? Can you think about reimagining your retirement? What would it look like?
These aren't easy subjects to present. Listen more than you speak, and be careful not to patronize, accuse or assume. (The Conversation Project has a number of excellent resources and downloadable PDFs to kick off these tough discussions.) But by opening the conversation in a relaxed setting (and not during a crisis in an ER waiting room), you can have a better understanding of what your father's preferences are, what plans are in place, and where your parents may need support—especially in terms of legal preparedness.
Putting Plans in Place (and On Paper)
Emily Garnett, an elder law attorney specializing in Medicaid and guardianships, validates the significance of these conversations. "It's so important to have those lines of communication open with family members, and have them be able to express their wishes and feel comfortable being honest about their issues, as well as being able to feel like they have a voice in their present and future care," she says.
Writing a will isn't necessarily the best next step. "Planning for disability is more important than planning for death for the vast majority of dads, unless you have a complicated family situation or a 'black sheep heir,' " says Andrew Oh-Willeke, a sole practitioner who has practiced law in Colorado for more than 20 years. "If you must do just one thing, put in place a medical power of attorney and durable power of attorney. This is cheap and easy," Oh-Willeke says.
Garnett agrees. "Having a will/estate plan prepared by a knowledgeable elder law attorney is important, but just as important is a power of attorney and health care proxy," she says. "Without those two documents, an elder faces the prospect of guardianship should he or she face incapacity, which can drain assets and create vulnerability for the elder."
You've got a lot to talk about. Call your dad and make a date!