Communication breakdown #1: Moving out of the family home
An examination of a typical interaction between you and your elderly parents illustrates how much can get lost in translation:
Your father has fallen twice over the last few months, but every time you suggest a move from the family home, he changes the subject.
Your experience: Ever since your mother died last year, "what to do about Dad" has become one of the primary items on your mental To Do list.
When you drop in for a visit after a long day at work, your father is unsteady as he makes you a cup of tea and knocks the cup to the floor. As you gather up the broken china, your teenage son calls to remind you he needs a ride to the math tutor's house in less than an hour. On the way to pick him up, you need to get something for dinner, which gives you about ten minutes with your father for tea and a visit.
You're feeling rushed as you raise the issue, again, of the assisted living facility nearby. Instead of responding, your father wanders off on a well-worn memory about the house, and how he and your mother purchased it just three months after your brother was born.
Depleted from your day at work and pressed for time, the last thing you want to do is listen to a story you've heard countless times before. You want the matter resolved, so you can cross it off your list and move on. There's your son's college applications to think about, after all, and you're facing several important deadlines at work. You'd love to be able to take a trip this autumn with your husband without worrying about Dad while you're gone.
From your perspective, your father is being stubborn and obtuse. Why can't he just deal with the issue? Could he be failing mentally, as well as physically? You react by snapping at him, reminding him that you've heard the story before. Now it's time to leave, and you drive away full of remorse as you recall the hurt look on your father's face.
Your father's experience: For your father, several things are going on at the same time. There are control issues: He has recently lost your mother, and after such a major loss, the thought of giving up his lifelong home is too much to contemplate.
At the same time, he dreads the thought of going to a place where he knows no one and will have to follow institutional rules and schedules. If he sells the family home, what will happen to his garden and the trees he and your mother planted to celebrate each of the children's births? Given all his doubts and fears, your father chooses to avoid the matter altogether by simply changing the subject.
Your father is also engaged in building his legacy, whether he's conscious of it or not. The memory he relates is not a random one; it's a narrative that expresses the values and accomplishments of a lifetime. It's the story of his long and happy marriage, his pride at being able to buy a house, and his delight at becoming a father.
Communication breakthrough #1: Making time to listen
To help improve communication between you, consider:
- Time and timing: One of the greatest challenges people in midlife face in their dealings with the elderly is to slow down and find the time to be fully present. It's a mistake to discuss important issues on the fly, when you're rushed and preoccupied. If you need to talk about something crucial with your parents, make a conscious effort to put your personal agenda aside -- along with your cell phone. And remember, such issues will take time to resolve -- and probably require more than one discussion.
- Listening: Be sure to pay attention to your father's ideas and to fears he may be expressing indirectly. Even if you've already made up your mind that your father should go into an assisted living facility, you should really listen to what he's saying and be open to other options. If it's too soon after your mother's death, could the move be put off for a few months? Could you hire someone to come in and help him for a few hours each day, or could adjustments in the house help prevent another fall?
- Being respectful: When you tell your father what you think he should do, do so respectfully. Try to avoid a bossy or dismissive tone. If your father becomes angry, drop the subject and return to it another day. If he continues to disagree with you, don't force the issue. As long as your father is a fully functioning adult, you can't force him to follow your advice -- no matter how "right" you think it is.
- Participating in your father's legacy project: You can help your father create his legacy by asking questions and affirming the values he expresses. You can help him record his memories by creating a photo album or by interviewing him for an oral history. Your interest and involvement will not only make the process more meaningful, it will make this life transition less lonely and frightening.