Difficult Conversations: Adult Children and their Aging Parents

Difficult Conversations

It is a common topic of conversation these days among those whose parents are facing the impacts of aging. “My Mom has fallen three times within the past few months and I’m so worried about her.” “Since my Mom died, my Dad seems down. His mobility is so limited; he rarely leaves the house anymore.”

Bringing up topics with our parents about their increasing frailties and declining physical abilities can feel uncomfortable and sometimes, downright scary. They are our parents, after all. There is no fail-proof way to have these types of conversations. Every family and every situation is different. However, there are some basic tips that can be helpful to guide families. The Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center offers eight suggestions that are useful when starting difficult conversations between children and their aging parents.

1) Be patient! Keep in mind that change will occur slowly, in small steps. None of us accepts or makes changes in our lives quickly, so why would we expect it to be any different for our aging parents? Experts suggest starting as early as possible to talk about issues of aging impacting our older family members. Starting early allows for multiple conversations to occur over time rather than being challenged to find quick solutions when a major crisis presents itself.

2) Try to avoid drastic changes all at once whenever possible.  Adult children are often working full-time jobs and raising children, sometimes grandchildren. They are stretched and stressed as they juggle the many demands on their time. At times solutions to their aging parents issues may seem obvious to an adult child and relatively quick to implement. However, their aging parents lives often move at a considerably slower pace. They don’t feel the same sense of urgency and may resent being pushed too quickly. Pushing too hard and too fast can backfire.

3) Keep a respectful attitude. It is a human need to be treated with respect, no matter what age we are. All conversations go better when the participants use a respectful tone and language. Try to imagine how you might feel if you were in your parent’s situation. The debilities that accompany aging for some older adults can result in an overwhelming sense of loss of control.  All of us fear loss of control. Conveying an attitude of respect can go a long way to mitigate that sense of loss of control during your conversations.

4) Maintain clear communication. LISTEN, LISTEN and LISTEN some more to the concerns expressed and try to address them. Listen without judgement. You’re trying to reach the right answer together.

5) Acknowledge their fears/concerns and talk about what might ease their mind. Most parents are used to being the parent; parents are supposed to have all the answers. The impacts of aging can make older adults feel vulnerable and powerless. For adult children, it can feel more comfortable to simply wave off our parents’ fears because of our own discomfort and anxieties. Asking open-ended questions about how they are feeling and acknowledging their fears, and our own, can be a validating experience for them and go a long way to build a trusting relationship. For example, ask “I know when I think about getting older, I worry about if I’m saving enough money or if I’ll be able to manage the house we live in. Do you ever have worries like that?”

6) Keep things in perspective.  There are certainly times in an older adult’s life that necessitate quick decision making, such as experiencing a broken hip or a significant stroke. Much of the time, however, we self-impose a sense of urgency. We need to stop and ask ourselves “Is this a decision that really needs to be made today, or could it be made next week or even the next months?” It’s often helpful to let conversations “percolate.” Haven’t we all experienced being able to reflect on a difficult conversation with more clarity and comfort the next day or days?

7) Let go of things that don’t really matter. “Choose your battles carefully” is an adage that we all have heard– and with good reason. None of us ever wins every battle. It may bother you that your parent’s home is not as gleaming and organized as it once was, but perhaps that’s not an issue worth battling over. On the other hand, a broken stair or loose banister could potentially pose a significant safety concern.

8) Don’t get in a power struggle, be flexible and try to listen to the core concerns being expressed. Invariably when engaging in a power struggle, everyone loses. The stubbornness you perceive in your parents’ behavior may really be the expression of deep fear of losing control over their lives. If together you can get to the root of their fear, you have a much better change of moving forward to solutions together.

It is so important for caregivers not to feel alone as they move through their care giving experiences. JFS offers caregiver education, counseling and support through our Senior Care Services. For more information about these services contact Bonnie Jaffe, RN at (651) 698-0767.