Improve Elderly Communication: Demystifying Your Aging Parents' New Stage of Life

Understanding this new stage of life can help you improve communication and avoid power struggles.
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Bridging a generation gap with elderly parents

Those of us who are caring for elderly parents are often bewildered by the decisions they make -- and by their seemingly stubborn refusal to follow our advice. We shake our heads over their obsession with the past, their caution, and the glacial pace with which they make decisions and move through the world. As much as we love our parents, dealing with them can often be fraught with tension and frustrating, as we try to bridge a communications gap as yawning as any we've experienced with rebellious toddlers or teenagers.

Part of the problem is that we tend to think about our elderly parents as more wrinkled, less capable versions of the people they used to be. As a society, we take it for granted that old age is a time of decline rather than development and personal growth.

But experts who study the psychology of the elderly paint a richer, more complicated picture of aging. It turns out that aging involves distinct developmental stages and that elderly people have pressing life tasks they need to accomplish if they're to end their lives with resolution and meaning. It's true that aging is challenging and painful -- probably more painful than we can conceive. But the experience of aging can also be fulfilling and profound if it's approached with insight and clarity and with the support of caring children and loved ones.

By understanding your elderly parents' experience, you'll be better equipped to communicate with and help them -- so they'll enjoy an old age you may wish to emulate when your turn comes around.

The powerful forces that shapes our aging parents' behavior

According to theories of human development formulated by psychologist Erik Erickson, humans go through distinct stages as they grow from infant to adult. These stages are dominated by what Erickson called "crises," that is, the conflicting impulses that drive us and facilitate growth. It's by resolving these crises that we're able to move on to the next developmental stage and eventually grow into mature adults. Much research has gone into understanding and explaining the stages children go through, and this work has helped to shape our modern theories of child development, as well as our contemporary approaches to parenting.

Much less attention has been paid to the experience of older people, but geriatric experts contend that humans continue to face developmental tasks into old age. In his book How to Say It to Seniors , author David Solie, who specializes in geriatric issues, describes the developmental tasks that the elderly face, and explains how these tasks shape their behavior -- whether they're aware of it or not.

Solie describes the crises of the elderly as a conflict between control and legacy issues. And while he writes in universal terms, it's important to remember that every individual is different, and each person's experience of aging will have a lot to do with personal and environmental factors, as well as developmental ones.

Control looms large for our parents as they experience the deterioration of their physical health and mental acuity, as well as the loss of their homes and independence and the deaths of friends and life partners. Given these monumental losses, it's no wonder that elderly people tend to fight for control over the few areas of life they're still able to manage.

In her book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, psychologist Mary Pipher argues that inevitable or not, the losses elderly people endure can be devastating. She says that many elderly people exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the same affliction suffered by many soldiers returning from war. The elderly, she says, "are ordinary healthy people for whom all hell has broken loose."

Even as they struggle to accept and come to terms with their losses and to hold on to what remains, older people are engaged in an effort to shape and understand their legacy -- that is, to comprehend what their life has meant and the memories that will live on after they die.

Coming to terms with one's legacy is a tremendous job, according to Solie, and has a powerful effect on a person's actions, whether he's aware of it or not. Helping an elderly parent identify and create his or her legacy can also be a tremendously healing process, and it can mean the difference between lonely, alienating final years or deeply rewarding ones for parent and child alike.

Understanding our elderly parents' concerns (and how they conflict with ours)

By coming to grips with the developmental tasks that preoccupy elderly people -- and how these tasks conflict with our own middle-aged agendas -- adult children can more effectively communicate with and support their aging parents.

Solie, who's working on a book about the developmental stages of middle-aged adults, points out that our middle age agendas are often in direct conflict with those of our parents. We're juggling a million work and family challenges and like to move quickly and efficiently through the world, accomplishing one task after another and checking it off our "to do" lists. It's no wonder that our parents' reflections on the past and their reluctance to make decisions exasperate us. In addition, given our youth-oriented society, most of us are on a permanent quest to remain young (or at least young-looking). So it's no surprise that we have little tolerance or empathy for those who've already reached the place we have no desire to go.

Miscommunications between adult children and their parents

Because adult children tend to be in the dark about what their adult parents are going through, they often interpret their parents' wandering conversational style or stubborn behavior as a sign that they're failing or developing dementia. Because of such misunderstandings, it's common for adult children to become trapped in struggles over issues like housing and health care. These battles and miscommunications not only damage relationships but dist ract our aging parents from important legacy work they need to accomplish. Consider some typical examples of miscommunication between adult children and their parents:

Example 1: You're trying to talk to your widowed father about where he's going to live now that his health is failing. You're in a hurry to get the matter resolved, but your father keeps drifting off the subject to tell stories about how he found this house years ago when he and your mother were newlyweds.

What's really going on : Your father is consciously or unconsciously engaged in the life review process as part of understanding his legacy. As he contemplates leaving this house for good, he's looking back on all this house has meant to him since he first moved there with his young bride.

Example 2 : Your mother has complained several times that her eyes are bothering her and that she's having trouble reading at night. Yet every time you suggest making an appointment with her eye doctor, she resists. When you go ahead and make an appointment, she cancels it at the last minute, insisting that her eyes are fine.

What's really going on : Over the last few years, your mother has had to give up playing tennis because of her arthritis, and two of her oldest friends, who she often used to travel with, have died. She may be resisting the eye exam in part because she doesn't want to know if her eyes are failing, as this could mean more restrictions on her lifestyle and loss of independence.

Example 3 : Every time you visit your parents, all they seem to talk about is health problems — not even their own health problems, but those of friends, neighbors, even perfect strangers. Don't they have anything better to talk about?

What's really going on : When you consider that their failing bodies are robbing them of mobility, independence, and ultimately, life, it makes sense that many older people are fixated on health issues According to Mary Pipher, "Illness is the battle ground of old age. It's where we make our last stand. It's the World War, the Great Depression, the Hurricane Hugo. Like all post-traumatic stress victims, the old are interested in trauma stories. They talk to work through the trauma."

How to sidestep power struggles with elderly parents

Understanding what your parents are going through won't make all your frustrations disappear, but it can improve your communication and help you support your elderly parents as they navigate this challenging new stage of life. David Solie encourages adult children to sidestep power struggles with their elderly parents whenever possible and to instead try to build a partnership.

Here are a few simple but essential steps you can take to improve your communication with your elderly parent:

Make time: Your interactions with your elderly parents will be more satisfying and productive if you can carve out substantial time to spend with them, rather than dropping in for five minutes or touching base by phone between meetings at work. Of course, you probably don't have time to spend hours with your parents every day, but if you regularly make time for lunch, a cup of tea, or a weekend visit if you live far away, you'll be more likely to have the conversations that reveal underlying concerns and help legacy issues emerge.

Listen, listen, listen: Make sure to take the time to really listen to your parents. If they bring up something that seems unrelated to the matter at hand, it's always tempting to interrupt and steer them back on track. But if you pay attention, you may find that a seemingly irrelevant point indicates a concern you weren't aware of. Encourage your parents to reminisce, and pay careful attention to the story behind the story.

Ask good questions: If your parents are reflecting on an experience or sharing a memory, try to help them gain more understanding of the experience by asking open-ended questions. For example, if your mom remembers a trip with a beloved sister, ask, "what was your relationship with Aunt Susanna like?" Good questions will help facilitate your parents' life review process.

Consider creative ways you can help your parents shape their legacy: You can help your parents build a legacy through concrete, communal projects, like making photo albums, interviewing them for an oral history, or making a quilt or other hand crafted object together.

You'll never regret the time you devote to understanding your parents' experience -- and all you've done to help them gain a clearer perspective on their lives.

Connie Matthiessen

Constance (Connie) Matthiessen, senior editor, has worked as a healthcare and environmental journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and has written for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter. See full bio