Lady talking to elderly man about sensitive topics

How to Talk to Your Aging Parents About Sensitive Topics

Bethesda Health | July 23, 2020

Many of us have an aging parent who, physically or cognitively, has reached the point where changes need to be made concerning his or her care. The result – you have to have a conversation with your loved one you never wanted or expected to have.

Making it more difficult is the fact that this person raised you and helped you make decisions about life. Now, it is your turn to help your parent make decisions about their life.

How do you begin? What are the words?

Let’s look at some ways to make the discussion positive with a senior adult.

Sensitive Topics

There are a number of “sensitive” topics. For example:

Of course, you could skip the conversation altogether, but that doesn’t make these issues go away. In fact, dealing with them before they become major challenges will lead to better decisions than those made hastily under the stress of quickly grabbing for solutions.

Prepare for the Conversation

Determine who is the best person to lead the conversation. Your aging parent loves you, but let us assume that you have had some angry disagreements in the past. However, your older sister seems to be able to talk to Mom or Dad without stirring up bad memories or negative emotions. Things could go more smoothly, therefore, if she leads the discussion.

Include other family members, if possible. However, you will want to talk with them ahead of time. Compare what you have observed with what they have noticed about Mom or Dad. Listen to their opinions, concerns and solutions. Most importantly, try to find some common ground, even if some opinions differ. You don’t want to go into a family discussion with your parent if your brother is adamantly opposed to everything you want to discuss. Without some level of consensus, the conversation will probably become confusing and emotionally charged, and will only make future attempts to talk more difficult.

Write an outline. You need to keep yourself and your family members organized during the conversation, and stay on track with the items you want to discuss.

Think about what is important. Your concern is about the safety, happiness, peace of mind, and general wellbeing of your aging parent..

Consider their perspective. Put yourself in your parent’s place. Perhaps your health is failing, or your ability to drive is being questioned. Perhaps you can’t keep up with the house maintenance or the bill paying. You also may experience pain, feel isolated and depressed, and may be faced with leaving your home.

You’re losing control of your life and those things you cherished the most. The last thing you – or they — will want to hear is that changes are needed that result in you becoming more dependent on others.

Try a practice run. Run through your topics while a friend or relative listens and get their feedback. Are you being clear and understandable? Are you speaking in positive, calm tone of voice? Are you trying to cover too many topics in a single conversation?

Plan for plenty of time to talk. Determine the best time of day to talk to your parent, as well as the best room in the house for a quiet, focused discussion.

Think about a way to start the conversation. For example: “Mom, I’ve noticed you seem to have difficulty climbing stairs.” Or, “Dad, I’ve seen some unopened mail on the kitchen table, would you like me to help you sort through it?”

If the response is positive, ask if there are other challenges he or she would be willing to discuss.

Have options. You’ll want to have some resources to suggest.. Where can you find help for them? What kind of assistance is available, and at what cost? Check out some senior living communities if that may be required..

Learn about the physical or cognitive challenges your senior loved one is experiencing, and how those challenges will change over time. With their consent, talk to his or her physician about what your aging parent will face.

Prepare for resistance. Even if you have always got along well with your parents, don’t be surprised (or overwhelmed) if you meet some stiff resistance when you begin the conversation. Stay calm, stay focused, and be prepared to end the discussion if it becomes too tense. Then try to approach your parent again at a later date.

Principles of Conversation

There are techniques for talking that will make the conversation more productive and less stressful. They include:

Listen. Don’t get too caught up in the points you want to speak about. Stop to listen to your senior’s concerns and ideas. If they sense you do not care about their opinion, you’re not going to get very far with them. Remember this is a dialogue. If they bring up a valid point or something you had not thought of, be prepared to consider it and perhaps change your thinking.

Speak distinctly and respectfully. Your aging parent may have a hearing problem, and be too embarrassed to admit they can’t hear what you are saying. Don’t speak in a condescending manner, and don’t rattle off several topics at a time. Let your senior have time to think about what you are saying and respond to it.

Empathize. Tell them you understand how difficult their life has become, and that you admire the way they have handled themselves through it all. Remember, you are not in the conversation to give orders, but to express your concern and mutually seek solutions. The senior will react much better if they feel cherished and respected as part of the decision-making process.

Offer options. If you have done your homework, you can offer some solutions instead of just compiling a list of problems and unanswered questions. Perhaps you could suggest that you and your parent sit down at a later date with a geriatric care manager, an expert in senior adult needs and resources. The care manager is an unbiased, authoritative source, and this course of action may be more agreeable to your loved one and other family members.

Prioritize. Keep the conversation on the most pressing concerns—recent falls by the senior, cognitive issues, diminished driving skills, etc. Even if it irritates you, don’t bring up the fact that Dad doesn’t change his shirt often enough.

Laugh. Nothing relieves stress better than laughter. Pause the discussion and look back at something funny that happened in your family’s history. Just make sure you are laughing with your family, not at them.

To discover more insights and tips, check out our Caregiver Tips section on our blog.

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