Communication-Aging Parents and The Children who Know Best?
When I was in college, I was studying to be a Social Worker and pondering how I could best serve humanity. I had a good friend who had known my parents and I for a long time. I announced to her, “I think I want to work with seniors!” She rolled her eyes and sarcastically replied, “Oh yeah, cause you’re so good with your parents?”
Sometimes we are so close to our own parents, it is harder to communicate with them. It is a battle of role reversal that neither of us expected or wanted. Parents tell their children what to do, not the other way around. They are used to guiding, helping and keeping us safe and happy. Now we are trying to do that for them and everything we can’t convince them to do feels like a reflection on us. This might sound familiar if we have children ourselves. Client’s adult children often say to me, “My mother won’t do anything I ask her. You are so good with my mother”. I always reply, “That is because she is not my mother!”
There are ways to communicate with an older parent however, that can lead to real solutions, a closer relationship, and mutual respect. Something to try to always avoid, in communication in any relationship, is telling someone what they should do. This puts the other person on the defensive and can make them feel like a child, in this case by their own child.
- A better way, is to start by listening. Listen to your parent’s concerns about their life. What are they worried about? Ask them if they have thought about what they would like to do about it. Perhaps they have already thought of a solution that would work for them. This lets them know that you value their opinion and trust them.
- Tell them what you see going well in their life. Point out their strengths to them. This starts everything out positively. It let’s them know that you think they are capable, and you respect and value what they can still do. As someone ages they worry about not being as capable at doing things that were once easy for them. It can make them feel like a failure. So to see that you don’t think they are failing, is a real boost of confidence.
- If they can’t think of, or don’t want to, acknowledge something that you feel is a concern, tell them your worry. One per conversation, rather than bombarding them with all of your worries. Pick your battles. Usually health and safety concerns are the most important to address first. Because you just provided so much positive reinforcement, it does make a negative easier to hear. For example, if you are worried they are not eating enough or well enough. Ask them what they think is causing that. They might say. “ I am not hungry anymore”, or “I hate to cook for just myself.” Then ask what they think they should do about it. Maybe they have already thought of it.
- Also, using that same example, empathize with them saying something like, “I know I hate to cook when I am home alone too, I get it.” Take their side so they know you understand how they feel. Then you might say,” I order delivery from the gourmet store”, or “The lady next door gets meals on wheels and she says they are much better than they used to be”. Or if it is lack of appetite, “ I wonder if your doctor would know what could be causing that?” These are suggestions that your parent may take right away or they might need to think it over because it is a new idea for them and they want to take time to decide about it. Chances are if you leave it with them to take the suggestion to mind, you will get a call a few days later. Perhaps saying they are thinking of trying Meals on Wheels or asking when their next doctor’s appointment is. Your answer will be, good idea Mom, good thinking. You won’t get any credit for the idea, but it’s worth the sacrifice.
- Of course, all of that still may not work, especially if a parent is suffering with some memory loss and confusion and is not making good, clear decisions. In this case, you might say to them, I know you are probably just fine and perfectly capable, but I worry so about you. If you could try doing this just for me, I could sleep better at night. Parent’s don’t want their kids to worry and it gives them a reason to do it while not having to admit their failings. They can blame it on you. It is always harder, but more effective to leave our ego’s at the door and choose being kind over being right.