Aging Parents and Arguments: Who Wins?

Aging Parents Set in Their Ways

“Older people get set in their ways,” Dad told me that when I was a preteen. I don’t think I understood anything but the obvious.  I’m much older now; better educated. Wiser. Due to many factors, I get it–with all its nuances….I think.

There’s something about attaining a certain age that makes some oldish people who still “have a good head on their shoulders” (perhaps more than “some“) exhibit problematic behavior. They become set in their ways–feeling some or all of the following: they’re entitled, they’ve earned the right to….
1….do nothing they don’t want to do
2….forget trying to be nice
3….have the courage of their conviction (right or wrong)
4….say whatever comes to mind without regard to its impact
5….expect more of us than is reasonable
6….change their mind on a whim

(Feel free to add to the list.)

When aging parents behave poorly, we have response options if, indeed, we choose to respond. To make good decisions and respond appropriately we first need to ask ourselves (mentioned often in my posts; used often in my counseling to clarify for me and my counselees) “What’s the goal?”

3 Considerations

1. We can just go with it– if keeping the peace is our goal and we decide it’s not worth an argument. We don’t play the game, so to speak. There used to be a school of thought in business that went something like: If the monkey wants a banana, give him a banana.” Translated: “if it isn’t outrageous (like threatening to life and limb), don’t argue.” This incorporates values–knowing what arguments/disagreements/fights/are worth winning.

2. We think we must argue (and win) because our aging parents’ own good is our goal. This could involve an argument about something that puts life and limb at risk or is necessary to correct something that is clearly erroneous and must be corrected.

3.  We lose patience and get into an argument that probably won’t end well for anyone. A conflict between empowering aging parents (a goal of this blog) and our need (goal) to “set them straight” isn’t unusual. There’s a delicate balance here. Do we just need to “let off steam”?

Response Options

1.  When/if we decide it’s not worth arguing about, let it go. Why cause needless arguments? They make no one happy and affect relationships.

2.  When it’s worth the argument make a short, mental list of what’s involved and focus on that–don’t get sidetracked, keep the goal in mind. Then take ownership by using “I” and “to me” with “feeling” statements and “it seems” statements. By simply expressing our feeling as opposed to accusing or passing judgment, we open opportunity for a productive discussion, not an argument. No direct “attack” lessens the need to be defensive. Examples: “I’d  feel much better if you’d see the doctor about….”  “It seems to me, you misunderstood…..”

3.  We’re all human and can easily have a tendency to “snap back.” Especially when we’re tired, it’s easy to lose patience over even simple things. Maybe we should just acknowledge and express our fatigue and either give in (if it’s not a category 2 argument) or apologize–or try to put off the conversation until the next day when we’re less tired.

As people age they tend to have less contacts with others, get less compliments (once called “strokes”), thus less ego-gratification. Their egos may become more fragile. And they want to hold on to what they have, even if they know they’re not as able or knowledgeable as they once were–or they realize they’re wrong. Especially those living alone can become more sensitive to slights–real or imagined–and criticism.

When our goal is to help parents age well, doesn’t it make sense to think of long term consequences, pick our battles, do what we can to preserve our relationship and not make stubborn elders miserable? Arguing with them may only be important a small percentage of the time.

Related: Aging Parents: Ornery, Difficult, Unappreciative Part 1
                Tough talks, difficult discussions: The Best Way to Begin 

Note: “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities, respected professionals, selected publications–plus some practical  stuff–-to help parents age well.


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