How to talk to your aging parents about important issues

by Gary Gilles

How to talk with aging parents

Navigating the inevitable transitions of our parents’ later years can be very challenging, especially if your parent has traditionally been very independent and self-sufficient. But there are some sound principles that should help you talk this issue through and be able to come to some resolution that you and your mom can live with.

Empathize with feelings

Perhaps the best starting point for talking with your parent about tough issues is to first try to step into their shoes. We usually see life through our own eyes but communicating effectively with older adults requires an empathic perspective from their point of view. When talking with older adults it is critical to understand how loss begins to define so much of their world: loss of health, finances, friends, mobility, driving privileges and control, to name just a few.  If we acknowledge and let them talk about these losses, it often gives us opportunities to talk about alternatives that help them retain what control they have left.

Practice good communication skills

Offer options and not advice. Remember to ask for your parents’ ideas and input. Express your concerns rather than telling them what they should do. Be respectful when giving your opinion. Listen carefully to their concerns and draw them out by asking open-ended questions that foster discussion rather than closed questions that are answered with a “yes” or “no.”

Let your parent be part of the decision-making process

Allow them to be part of the decision-making process. Extending choice to our parents is one effective way of helping them feel in control. For example, if the issue under discussion is turning over their finances, you might say, “Give me your ideas of how you think this transition can best be handled?” By allowing your parent to make suggestions, you are giving them some control. As they take that control, they are more likely to adapt to the changes that are being suggested because they are part of the decision-making.

Start your discussions early

Don’t wait until a crisis occurs to begin talking to your parent about important transitions. Start the dialogue now. If you wait until your parents are in the midst of a health or financial crisis there may be fewer choices available to them, especially if there are long waiting lists for services they need. Let your parents know you are concerned about them, and you want to do the right thing for them as they age. This will help them better understand why you are bringing up sensitive issues.

Being more proactive, rather than reactive, can also help to prevent some of the conflict and stress that occurs in families when a parent’s health starts to deteriorate and everyone is scrambling to find a quick resolution.

Include other family members

Bring other family members into the discussions with your parents, but first determine whether they have different opinions that would undermine what you are trying to accomplish. Get all the issues on the table and gather support from siblings and other relatives. It’s important to understand that there is not one single strategy that is going to work for every family situation.

Agree to disagree

Your heart may tell you you’re right, and that you know what needs to be done but your parents may disagree with you. Don’t push to get your way. Their wishes should prevail unless their health or safety is in question. It may take many conversations over a long period of time before they see the need for change as clearly as you.

Strive to honor and respect your parents

Though your parents may seem to be less able than they once were, show respect for the life experience they have gained and the great sacrifices they may have made for you. Reassure them that you will be there for them as they age and go through these life transitions.

Reevaluate if things aren’t working well

If you find that the conversations aren’t going well you might suggest that your parents talk with a third party—a geriatric care manager, a financial planner, counselor or a lawyer—if you think that they could use some expert assistance.

Talking with your parents about tough issues is not easy. But if approached the right way, it can strengthen and enrich your relationship with each other and be a tender way of expressing your love and care for them.

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