How To Talk to Elderly Loved Ones About Tough Family Issues
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
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.
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.
- Listen: Be receptive to what your parents have to say. For example, if they’re intent on managing on their own finances, 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.
- Being respectful: When you tell your parent what you think they should do, do so respectfully. Try to avoid a bossy or dismissive tone. If your parent becomes angry, drop the subject and return to it another day. If they continue to disagree with you, don’t force the issue (unless it is one of safety). As long as your parent is a fully functioning adult, you can’t force them to follow your advice — no matter how “right” you think it is.
- 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.
Remember to 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.
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