If you were visiting your aging parents over the holidays and took my advice about checking for health and safety issues, the next natural step is to have “the conversation.” The content of that conversation will differ based on what you found, and your parents’ situation, but there’s a general consensus among adult children that it’s one of the hardest conversations to get started. Yet start you must. And the sooner the better. Here are some tips to make it easier.
Put yourself in their shoes. In his book, How to Say It to Seniors – Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders, David Solie provides insight, tips and examples of how to have conversations with your parents that are “pleasurable, productive and effective.” He points out that while we are driven by the need to tally achievements and fix things, the elderly are driven to “maintain control over their lives” in the face of nearly daily losses, and to “discover their legacy” or what will live on after them. These differing, age-based agendas are at the core of the communication difficulties many adult children experience with their aging parents.
The need to maintain control, Solie says, is the result of the ongoing, irreplaceable losses the elderly suffer in areas that we take for granted. For example, the loss of
- Physical strength
- One or more of their senses, such as hearing
- Friends and relatives
- Physical space
- Financial independence
When you allow yourself to see things from their point of view, you will be better able to collaborate on solutions that work for everyone.
Keep things positive. What we consider playful teasing about our parents’ forgetfulness or other aging-related stereotypes may, in fact, be quite hurtful. No one likes to be reminded that they’re getting older and may not be as sharp as they once were. Likewise, don’t nag or criticize if things are not done as well as you think they should be, e.g., housekeeping or recordkeeping. Strive for patience and empathy.
Remember, it’s about them. Start from the premise that the conversation is about your parents’ needs, desires and concerns. Show that you care by letting them know you are concerned about their well-being. You might approach the conversation this way: “Mom, I worry about you – I want to be sure that you’ll have enough money to live life the way you want to. It would really put my mind at ease if we could spend some time going over your income, savings and expenses together.” Since most parents don’t want to cause stress to their child, this approach is a gentle way to open the door to a discussion. Hold the conversation in a comfortable, non-confrontational setting, conveying that your goal is to ensure their comfort and safety.
Listen first. You may have a lot of ideas, but listen first. Remember, they’ve been in the parental role for a long time and relinquishing that may be difficult. Ask open-ended questions about their concerns and desires around housing, health, safety, finances, etc. Transition into your changing roles in a loving and respectful way.
Getting through all the topics that you should discuss with your parents – housing, healthcare, finances, funeral arrangements – will take multiple conversations over a period of time. Creating a model of open communication and empathic listening in the first conversation, however, will make all those that follow much easier.
For some families, relationships are such that these difficult conversations result in more fireworks than progress, if they get started at all. If that’s the case, then it’s time to enlist some professional help, such as a therapist or family mediator who specializes in this area.
If this is the case for you, please contact me and I can connect you with one of the qualified professionals in my network!