Aging Parents: Tough Talks, Difficult Discussions– The Best Way to Begin

“We Need to Talk” is not the best way to begin. 

Tough talks. Dreaded discussions. Difficult conversations–often about issues involving two generations’ differing realities. Parents are good drivers.(?) Parents’ homes are still suitable.(?) Parents’ hygiene is fine.(?) The list goes on. To help parents age well, what is the reality?

Do they need our help? or Do we need their help?  

Our reality may not be their’s. We think their driving is scary. They think they’re doing fine. While we believe aging parents and elders we care about need our help, their reality may be: No help néeded. Nothing’s wrong. Isn’t that a recipe for conflict?

When aging parents know there’s a problem and need help (assuming their minds are good), they’ll ask for it–or at least hint. If they’re unaware or aware and don’t ask, they could be in denial or have adopted the common fear that sharing certain problems with their children can ultimately limit their independence. They’ll defend their independence at all costs.  No surprise!

The truth is we need their help–to help us understand their reality, avoid emotional arguments that end poorly, and help them age well. To accomplish this, we want to begin difficult conversations with: “I need your help.” 

It brings parents into our sphere. It’s empowering and affirms we value their help. It’s inclusive. Whereas “We need to talk” can create defensiveness and anxiety.

Feeling included and possibly flattered, over-rides defensive knee-jerk reactions when touchy subjects are broached. Ideally we’re equal partners on common ground looking for solutions.

Inclusion also involves creating a setting that promotes equality. No one should have a dominant position. For instance if sitting at the dining room table, make certain one parent is at the head. (I wouldn’t sit behind my desk for certain difficult conversations during my counseling career.)

We can follow up “I need your help” with: “because….”–“I’ve been worrying ever since I noticed….”  –“I learned on TV that…..”  Make it short. Saying more than necessary gets us in trouble. The extraneous gets latched onto, the conversation goes a different direction, and gracefully getting back to the issue is hard.

Responses may surprise us. At best parents have similar thoughts, are dealing with it, or want our help; at worst they’re uncooperative. Example:

“I need your help because it’s strange to me that while you’re always clean shaven and decently groomed, I’ve noticed there’s an odor when I’m sitting in the car with you. Have you noticed it?”  

He hadn’t. (With age sense of smell often decreases). This 80-some-year-old widower (no children, a smoker) said he could no longer carry his laundry to the basement, and was washing clothes in his apartment’s sink. The clothes had the odor. He was eager to get help.

The right start makes difficult conversations easier.

Related:  Helping Aging Parents: From Resistance to “On Board.”
                Aging Parents and Arguments: Who Wins?



Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.


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