If you’re worried about an aging parent, you’re not alone. As our parents age, a difficult transition begins. The people who were once our authority figures, the ones who fed us, took care of us and taught us right from wrong, become people we worry about and may one day need to take care of. It’s the ultimate role reversal, and one that most of us have an extremely difficult time making. The result is a communication gap—a whole series of conversations we should be having with our aging parents, but aren’t. When it comes time for your parents to make some significant changes, do you know how you’ll approach the conversation?
Addressing hard topics sooner rather than later can contribute to better, healthier, safer outcomes for everyone involved. The last thing you want is to have to make rushed decisions in a crisis. To have a constructive conversation with an elderly loved one about any of your concerns, you need to be considerate and prepared. Take these strategies to heart and make sure you start off on the right foot.
- The conversation before the conversation: Even before you have concerns, it can be helpful to have a conversation with your parents about the fact that at some point a conversation will probably need to happen. You might discuss how each person would like to see things handled, and what dynamics would help set your parents at ease. Things could change of course, but breaking the ice, so to speak, can help make the future conversation easier to start when the time comes.
- Set the right tone: Thoughtfully choose the timing, location and participants of the conversation to promote a relaxed, neutral, non-threatening environment. It’s important that everyone – especially mom or dad – feels comfortable and able to participate in the discussion. If your siblings want to be involved, make sure you agree on your goals and strategy ahead of time so together you can present a united front.
- Put yourself in their shoes: For instance, taking away the keys to the car is often one of the first experiences of decreased independence and kicks off the role-reversal with children who are taking over responsibility. Realize this shift can be incredibly difficult and could make a loved one feel like their end is near. Be compassionate, address their concerns, ask questions, and imagine how you will feel when you are in their shoes.
- The conversation behind the conversation: You hold a privileged role. You not only can help care for their physical needs, but also to be a place for them to express emotions they’re experiencing as they age. Sometimes even just bringing up the topic of fear, grief, confusion, loneliness, etc. can open the door and give them permission to talk. You don’t need to be professionally trained to listen well, but you may feel the need for the additional resource of counseling for your parents, you and your parents, or maybe even just yourself as you process their aging. This transition is not easy, so give yourself permission to seek out additional support if needed.
- Take it slow: Plant ideas, take a step back, and then bring up the advantages and disadvantages of an idea later. The key is to stay engaged, but to tread lightly. Be prepared for push-back. Forcing the issue can create greater conflict, so it’s best to let it go in the moment and return to the topic later. This is not a one-time-fixes-all conversation.
- Help maintain independence: As a parent begins to show signs of old age, adult children tend to overreact. It can be wise to take baby steps that help them preserve their independence while giving you peace of mind. Make suggestions that are in line with their current needs and remember to make it a two-way conversation.
- Don’t ignore your instincts: Knowing how awkward, difficult, and potentially heated these conversations can be, it’s easy to put them off for another day. But doing so may put your loved one at physical, emotional, and financial risk. If you think something is wrong and needs to be discussed, don’t ignore it!