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.


Aging Parents: Successful Strategies for Difficult Discussions

Difficult Discussions: 9 Tips for Success

Difficult discussions were a normal part of  my counseling work: teacher-student dialogs to settle misunderstandings, parent-teacher conversations to clarify accusations or actions, constructive conversations with teenagers who made bad choices, parents who were angry at the school, their kids–you name it.

Early on I learned through experience (and techniques I learned at TC) how to prepare for uncomfortable discussions, achieve my goals, and maintain a good relationship. I also learned from a favorite professor, that when dealing with one’s family, we’ll probably forget what we learned and act on instincts. But keep reading. If we can feel comfortable, we’ll do well. So we need to

1. Start right, which means being inclusive (and that should be comfortable). The statement “I need your help” is inclusive–the right start as opposed to “We need to talk,” which immediately puts the speaker in the dominant position. The listener becomes the subordinate, leading to defensiveness.

2. Because often we’re surprised by what we learn if we begin with “I need your help,” we may not need to rehearse. That said, we hear we must feel like we “own” it, so rehearsing how we want to steer the conversation may be the only start we need–ie. I need your help. I notice you’ve been spending a lot of money lately……………….” Await the response.


1. Keep your eye on the goal: to accomplish your goal without demeaning or diminishing parents’ self-esteem should be a continual blinking light in your brain.

2. Replace a “know-it-all” (for lack of a better word) attitude with the possibility you don’t know it all. Begin with  statements like: “I could be wrong, so correct me if I am.” “It seems to me, but I may be wrong…”  “I’m wondering if you’ve noticed…”

 6 Specific TIPS 

  • Using objective information (facts, accurate observations, or accurate accounts) makes a point very effectively. No emotional overtones.
  •  Maintaining a respectful attitude, as opposed to a patronizing or condescending one, gets results.  (Repeating back what a parent has said, sounding like we care and want to get it right, shows respect.)
  • Being open to hearing both sides, even if we don’t agree, shows respect and objectivity.  It’s the opposite of being judgmental, which often encourages defensive responses.
  • Using “I” statements  prevents feelings from coming across as a lecture or as fact (see 2 above). More possibilities:  “I’ve noticed…” or “I may not be correct, but I think…” or “It may just be my concern but I…”
  • Bringing parents into the conversation makes them feel like equal partners: “I’ve noticed and perhaps you have too…” or “I’m not sure–so tell me what you think–but I’m thinking…”
  • It’s worth remembering that tone of voice can help or hinder a conversation.

Three prickly discussion subjects immediately come to mind: possible memory loss, driving, moving from one’s home. All are subjects older people have great concern–and are usually defensive–about. Master the conversation for any one of these, and you have a good working model for most anything that follows.

Memory Loss

Possible memory loss is a delicate subject addressed in my nonpublished book. I would feel remiss if I didn’t share the “difficult conversation” and aging parent advice, resulting from an interview with Dr. Pasquale Fonzetti, Clinical Assistant. Professor of Neurology, Cornell-Weil Medical Center; and Associate Director of Memory Evaluation and Treatment Services at Burke Rehabilitation Center, White Plains, NY.

 This is getting long and I am at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon without internet access until late tonight, so Dr. Fonzetti’s advice will be the focus of Tuesday’s post.

Grand Canyon, North Rim

Grand Canyon, North Rim