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How to Communicate with Elderly Parents

By Ron Kauffman, CSA

When you communicate with your elderly parents, do you ever think, "Maybe we're just not speaking the same language?" Or, "Why don't my senior parents understand? I only want to help, but there's just no talking to them."

We "kids," many of whom are aged 50 to 70 ourselves, are dealing with all kinds of parental challenges, especially if Mom or Dad still lives at home on their own. We can clearly see the problems— everything from financial struggles like paying high taxes on a large home, to yard, garden and home maintenance, to safety issues. For us, having a parent who has suffered a stroke and doesn't get around very well and who now may at risk for falls, or a mom whose eyesight is failing but won't give up the car, are simple problems that we can rush in and, if not fix, resolve. It's all so simple. So why won’t they listen to us?

The Issue is Control

Well, there are a number of reasons, and they all deal with the art of communication and the issues of independence and control. The fact is, as adults we see ourselves as parenting our parents, but they often see us as children, meddling in their lives and personal affairs. That's a combination of oil and water that just won't mix well. So how can we more effectively have a positive influence on our elderly parents without making them feel like we're taking over their lives?

Let's begin by saying it's not easy. The question we ask ourselves is this: why can't they see the problems they face the same way that we do? The short answer is that they don't always associate aging with a reversal or modification of roles, and many elderly parents are not willing to give their adult children control over their decisions and lives. The longer answer is that discussions about their finances, health, safety, driving, and long-range plans are not simple issues for a family fireside chat. These are highly charged emotional issues that, for decades, our parents have regarded as "none of your business." That's not going to change overnight, even if we wish it would, and therein lies the challenge of learning to communicate with your elderly parents.

What we have to understand about our parents is that they feel a very strong need to maintain control over their own lives, just as we do. As our parents have aged they have had to deal with everything from exiting the workforce, to the death of friends and family members, the loss of longtime family pets, debilitating physical challenges including failing hearing, eyesight, energy levels and strength, and worries about their financial future. That list represents a lot of potential losses. As a result, quite often elderly parents will fight to maintain control over the remaining aspects of their lives—even if some things are beyond their ability to control.

How to Involve Yourself

Having had to deal personally with these issues with my own mother, I suggest that adult children initially choose one major issue like taking over management of paying bills and handling the checkbook. It's a place to start. I also suggest asking permission, but phrasing it in a non-threatening manner. For example, you might ask, "Mom, may I help you? How about if I write the checks and you sign them?" That'll make what you're doing seem more like a favor, and over time, you'll find that your parent will just let go and assume that you're handling those things. For now, allowing your parents to continue to exert control over other issues will help them maintain a sense of control and independence. Eventually, the time will come when you'll have to oversee even those remaining things.

Communication Tips

The way you communicate counts for a lot in these situations. Some of the best communication techniques you can use include the following.

  1. Listen to what your parents say and try to understand what's important to them.
  2. Don't rush the conversation or create a "fire drill." If pushed too hard too soon, many seniors will respond by digging in their heels.
  3. Pose questions and offer more than one acceptable solution. Ask your parents which choice they think is best. By doing that you not only give them control and independence, but you also involve them in the decision process and make it work for everyone, regardless of the choice.
  4. Keep it simple. Raise a single issue at a time rather than a complex group of ideas or subjects all at once.
  5. Be patient. Talking with your parents isn't a race or a contest of wills to see who wins. It's a series of communications where both parties have to feel that they have benefited from the outcome.

The shifting of control and responsibilities from your parents is a slow, subtle, ongoing process that must be done with great sensitivity and tact—that's the graceful ability to step on someone's toes in such a way that it doesn't ruin the shine.

Until next time, thanks for caring.

Ron Kauffman


Ron Kauffman is a Certified Senior Advisor, radio talk show host and an expert on issues of aging and caregiving. He is the author of Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer's Disease, available at www.seniorlifestyles.net.