Aging can bring happiness, but it's also rife with tough-to-swallow changes. For many, an aging body and mind means dwindling independence and can feel like a loss of control over important areas of life. It can be hard for worried family members to know what to say in these challenging situations.
Luckily for adult children of aging parents, sticking to a few key guidelines can go a long way toward establishing trust and preserving healthy communication within your relationship.
Demonstrating empathy and understanding of their perspective and doing what you can to help is the key to positive interactions with your older loved one, says Katie Darling, a care manager with California-based Specialized Care Management, Inc. She suggests reassuring a loved one that you’re a team and that you’re there to work together, not to make sweeping decisions for them.
“Instead of ‘I don’t know’ or “That’s impossible,’ try using ‘I’ll find out’ or ‘Let me see if I can find a creative solution’,” suggests Darling. “Even if you’ve already done the research and haven’t found a solution, letting your loved one know you are open to their requests will make them feel that you are their advocate for better or worse, rather than another opponent or obstacle.”
Side-stepping the following negative conversation starters will also keep the lines of communication open and clear of controversy.
1. “You always tell me the same story!"
You might be thinking, “You’re repeating yourself...again!’ but your aging parent hears, “I don't care to listen to something you care enough to share.” To prevent from hearing the same stories over and over, ask leading questions that might elicit a different story from your parent, suggests Kryss Shane, a social worker in Los Angeles who frequently works with caregivers and their aging loved ones.
Tell your mom you’d love for her to share her memory of her favorite birthday, or ask her questions that might help populate a family tree. “Doing so increases the chance you’ll hear new stories from your loved one,” says Shane.
And try to stick to positive or happy topics, rather than something like a loved one’s passing or other negative memories. “You may even want to take notes or use a phone app to record these tales, as they may be future priceless moments to document as family history or to share with other relatives,” adds Shane.
2. “You need to use a cane/walker!"
Many older adults want to avoid using a cane or walker for fear the appliance makes them look old or frail. “As a result, few will use one unless they understand there is a reason to use it,” says Jasmine Marcus a physical therapist at McCune and Murphy Physical Therapy in Ithaca, NY. “Even people in their eighties will say, "Walkers are for old people and I'm not old yet!”,” says Marcus.
That fear can have older people telling white lies to medical providers when they promise to use the appliance, but then conveniently "forget" to bring it with them when out in public.
Help your parent avoid hazards by explaining that you’re worried they might fall and suffer a serious injury, and that using a cane or walker can prevent that from happening, advises Marcus.
3. “You never feel good.”
It’s common for older people to frequently turn—or start—conversations toward the topic of their failing health. “Family members and caregivers can often become frustrated rehashing ailments over and over,” says Sharon K. Brothers, MSW, CEO and co-founder of the Institute for Professional Care Education, which provides training for assisted living centers.
A better response to this popular conversation topic is allowing a limited time for the older person to “vent” about his or her health, demonstrating your compassion and then redirecting them, Brothers says.
“After stating you’re sorry they’re in pain or have to deal with managing multiple medicines, ask about a positive memory or experience,” she suggests. Whether you turn the conversation to the successes of the person’s grandchildren, ask about an accomplishment from their past or discuss upcoming travel plans, moving the conversation to a positive topic will ease your frustration.
“It can also benefit the mental health of an older person,” says Brothers. “It’s not healthy for someone to focus so much attention on negative issues. You’ll be helping increase your loved one’s health redirecting their attention, even for a few hours.”
4. “You shouldn’t live alone anymore.”
You may be trying to express concern for a loved one’s safety, but to an older person this statement is a sign their independence is in jeopardy. And they’re likely to become obstinate or combative whenever the topic of moving to assisted living or a family member’s home arises.
Instead, Shane suggests expressing your feelings of concern and then working together to find a solution that’s agreeable to everyone. “For example, say, ‘I'm really worried that living alone could mean something could happen to you and no one would be there to help you.’”
This type of approach may result in you learning that your aging parent has friends or mail carriers who check in daily or that your parent is worried themselves and wants to discuss options like having an emergency alert system installed or considering moving to a care facility.
5. “You’re too old to drive.”
Relinquishing the car keys can be one of the toughest parts of aging, says Brothers. “The need may arise out of necessity in someone who believes he or she is still young enough to drive, but who has cognitive or physical impairments that can make driving unsafe.”
She suggests approaching this topic with an inquisitive tone. “Start the conversation by stating you’ve noticed a lot of reckless driving on the roads and ask if that is as startling to the older person as it is to you,” she suggests. You can segue into talking about the possibility the senior might feel safer cutting down the amount of time he or she drives.
In the end, this is a very difficult subject and may require the help of a third party like the person’s doctor, physical therapist, or other professional to explain that it’s safest for everyone if the older person no longer operates a vehicle. “Saving that harsh reality for a non-family member, caregiver or loved one to explain will help preserve the elder’s relationship with loved ones,” says Brothers.
6. “I can’t believe you missed that appointment.”
Scolding an elderly person as if they were a naughty child is demeaning and disrespectful. “It breaks trust and can lead to passive-aggressive behavior such as ‘forgetting’ to tell children things they should know because the senior does not want their child to boss them around, treat them like a child or try to make decisions on their behalf,” says Teri Dreher, RN, owner and CEO of NShore Patient Advocates, a company that provides case managers to help clients navigate the health care system.
While it’s not good to miss doctor appointments, Dreher says doing so is rarely a calamity.
Avoid future issues by trying to understand the problem. If the missed appointment was initially made to address specific symptoms, perhaps the senior is afraid to get an answer, worrying that they may have cancer or another serious illness. “Talk it through in a loving, supportive manner, and encourage as much autonomy as is safe and possible, maintaining respect at all times,” Dreher advises.
You can also help ensure that your parent sticks to his or her health care appointments by offering to take them to the next one.
7. “You don’t need a jacket today; it’s warm outside.”
Brothers says it’s common to disagree about what’s considered weather-appropriate attire when talking to an older person. However, it’s important to remember that the ability to regulate temperature changes as we age. “Many older people are more sensitive to temperatures and feel cooler than those around them who are younger,” says Brothers.
If your dad insists on wearing a few layers when it’s 75 degrees, gently explain that it’s warmer out than he might expect. “Then suggest a lighter jacket or shirt, rather than the heavy one he’s selected, might be best at keeping him comfortable,” suggests Brother.
And don’t be afraid to offer help choosing the best outerwear. “Let him know you’re happy to help find a jacket, shirt, etc., that might best suit the situation,” says Brothers. “Just keep in mind the older person’s typical threshold for heat and cool temperatures.”