How to Talk to Elderly Loves Ones About Tough Family Issues

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Adult children and their parents often have trouble talking effectively. Small disagreements can be irksome and frustrating; if they simmer and grow, they can poison your last precious months and years together.

What causes these misunderstandings? According to David Solie, author of How to Say It to Seniors, they occur in part because the needs and developmental tasks older parents face are starkly different from -- and at times even conflict with -- those of their middle-aged children.


Conflicting life stages


As a culture, we tend to view our elderly parents as essentially obsolete -- like old cars destined for the scrap heap. But Solie and other geriatric experts believe that aging can actually be a period of growth and personal development. Understanding and facilitating the developmental needs of your parents can make this stage of life a deeply rewarding one -- for you and for them . But it can be difficult for middle-aged adults to support their elderly parents in this process -- in part because they're focused on their own developmental issues.

For most people, midlife is a time of independence and mastery. You've gained confidence and a clear sense of what your values are, so this stage of life is focused on consolidating your gains and taking on new responsibilities. At the same time, midlife is a time to nurture and give back, whether by having children or engaging in mentoring or social activism.


As an adult in middle age, you move quickly and efficiently through the world, completing tasks and taking care of your many responsibilities, looking ahead to the next mountain to climb. Your elderly parents, in contrast, are letting go of duties and responsibilities as they settle into retirement. As their physical health and independence fail, they try to hold fast to the areas of life they still control. At the same time, they're looking back and trying to understand the significance of their experience and what they'll leave behind.


It's these different perspectives that can lead to breakdowns in communication between you and your parents. By understanding the pitfalls, however, you can learn to talk to your elderly parents in a way that helps to close the communication gap.


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.

Communication breakdown #2: Dealing with money

Both your parents are increasingly frail and forgetful, but they refuse to let you help with bills and other practical matters.

Your experience: You and your older sister, who lives across the country, agree that your parents need more help. You volunteer to take over their finances, since you live closer. But your father insists that he can handle the bills himself. Your mother doesn't like the housecleaner your sister hired and told her not to come back. Their house is messy and cluttered, and you couldn't help noticing that your father's desk, where he pays the bills, is buried in papers and books.

Now your sister calls you at work to fret over what should be done. When you visit your parents, which you can only do on the weekends, you miss your routines with your own family and the chance to catch up on your sleep. Your parents seem oblivious to the fact that their disorder is gradually taking over your life, too.

During your last visit to your parents' house, you wanted to leave as soon as you arrived. When you asked about the bills, again, your mother said sweetly, "We're fine, dear. We really don't want to be a burden," and you felt like shouting, "But you are a burden! And you're ruining my life!"

Your parents' experience: It's important to see your frustrations in the context of your parents' broader situation. They're well aware that their years of independence are numbered: your father is showing signs of early dementia , and your mother is growing weaker by the day. Meanwhile, your father had to give up driving last year because of his cataracts. For your parents, life as they've always known it seems to be retreating into memory.

Given all the changes they face, your parents are trying to cling to the areas of life they can still manage. They appreciate your concern but also find it a little insulting. Your father likes to take care of the family finances: He's proud of his capability, punctuality, and ability to pay. Your mother prefers to do her own housekeeping -- even if it is a little slapdash.

Your parents are also focusing, consciously or unconsciously, on their legacy. They've always prided themselves on their hard work and independence. The idea of being a burden to you and your sister is mortifying. They know the day will likely come, but they're anxious to put it off as long as possible.

Communication breakthrough #2: Clearing the air

Some tips for breaking through this communication impasse:

  • Be direct: If you find that interactions with your parents have become a dialogue of the deaf, tell them that you're frustrated; chances are they feel the same way. Clearing the air may help you find some common ground.
  • Listen: Be receptive to what your parents have to say. If they're intent on managing on their own, don't argue. Listen to the messages that may be concealed in the remarks they make, and try to find solutions that work for all of you. If your father has too much pride to turn the bills over to you, for example, or is reluctant to share his financial information, he may agree to see an accountant instead.
  • Back off: When talking to your parents is consistently difficult, sometimes the best solution is to back off. If you continue to badger your parents, you'll only alienate them and frustrate yourself. If the worst that can happen is that checks could bounce or late fees accrue, let the matter rest for a while. Keep in touch with your father about how he's managing, and offer to help again if and when he seems more receptive.
  • Take care of yourself: If you find that you're frequently stressed out and angry, make sure that you're not neglecting your own needs. Try to make time for yourself and for your other relationships. Take regular breaks and vacations, even if it means hiring someone to stay with your parents. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be there for your parents and your family.

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