Some things to bear in mind when you’re trying to communicate with an aging parent

As my parents aged and needed more help, my siblings and I tried to be there for them every step of the way. They have both passed away and now — hopefully not too soon — my children may be doing the same for me and my husband.

I learned a few lessons that I should probably pass on to them. Like how not to communicate with your aging parent! For instance, I think I got a little bossy sometimes, just like my mother used to be with me. She would laugh to hear me say that.

Communicating with elderly parents can be challenging. You may feel as if your roles have been reversed and now you’re the one doing all the worrying. But sometimes it’s obvious (at least to us) that they might need some extra help.

Signs an elderly parent might need some help

  • Poor diet or weight loss
  • Food is left out or spoiled
  • Change in physical appearance/poor hygiene
  • Change in personality or mood
  • Medication mix-ups
  • Missed appointments
  • Bills not paid/warnings or disconnect notices
  • Unusual forgetfulness or confusion
  • Difficulty getting around, such as getting up from a chair, going upstairs or simply walking
  • Loss of interest in things he/she used to enjoy
  • The house looks different. It’s unusually cluttered and/or dirty. Dishes and rubbish are piled up. There are signs of hoarding.
  • The yard looks different. The grass isn’t mowed or snow not shoveled. Repairs aren’t being done.
  • Driving is a concern. A sure sign that driving has become a safety issue is that you are a nervous wreck when you’re a passenger in your loved one’s car or you would NEVER let your kids be one. Other signs include lots of scratches or dents, traffic tickets, or minor accidents. 
Older woman on phone

Source: Pond5

The wrong way to communicate

Several things on the list happened with my parents. And slowly, over several years, we started taking on more responsibilities. One thing that often concerned us about my mother was that she wasn’t all that steady on her feet. We all worried that she would fall and break a hip.

I remember one time I stopped by the house when she was in her early 80s to find her carrying boxes down the stairs from the second floor. My heart jumped into my throat and I yelled, yes, I yelled at her, “Ma, you cannot be carrying boxes like that anymore. Stop it right now!”

Boy, did I get a lecture. She told me that knew what she was doing. She was always careful, and basically, I should mind my own business.

I meant well, but that is certainly not how I communicated.

Better approaches

Becky Ness offers a much better approach to sharing your concerns with your parents. She’s a certified senior advisor at Senior Planning Advisors. Here’s what she had to say about me freaking out on my mom.

“When that’s the approach it does two things,” she said. “Number one, it makes the parent feel inadequate and they’re going to get defensive. As soon as parents start getting defensive, they shut down and you can end the conversation.”

Yup, that’s what happened to me. So what’s a better way to communicate your concerns?

“The approach that I’m recommending to people,” Becky told me,” is to say I’m really starting to worry about you. Try to make it your problem and not your parents. Say I’m concerned about your safety. I’m concerned about your health. I understand you still want to do all these things. It’s not a question that you can’t anymore, but it’s time that we get some help in here for you. Let’s get somebody to help you clean the house and do some of the errands, do some of the yard work. So you approach it that way because it’s that loss of independence that they’re feeling.”

Every conversation is different, said Becky. It will depend a great deal on what is going on with your parents, both physically and cognitively. If it’s just that your parents are getting older and you’ve started thinking about the “what ifs,” it might be better to initiate a conversation on an impersonal note. Say that you read or saw something in the movies, on TV or on the news that made you realize you had no idea how they’d like to be treated if they might need help in the future.

“I try to encourage adult children to start a conversation with their parents by saying I want to make sure we have everything in place,” said Becky. “Let’s sit down because I don’t understand what you want. Let’s talk about it.”

One thing that is important is to put yourself in their shoes. “Consider the feelings they may be having,” she stressed. “Think about the things your parents may have to give up. Acknowledge how difficult that can be for them.”

You know how you tell your kids that they’ll never understand the challenges of parenting until they become parents themselves? I think that’s also true about aging. Now that I am older, I can reflect back on all the things my parents had to give up along the way with a deeper understanding of what it meant to them. But I also understand what it means to be a worried daughter.

Thanks to those two perspectives, I’ve come to realize that we shouldn’t leave it up to our children to start a conversation. We should be the ones to initiate it.  But sometimes it’s the kids and not the parents who are reluctant to face the realities of aging. And so, if necessary, we can use some of the same conversation tips Becky suggested for our adult children.

The important thing is to start talking. As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, it’s far better and easier to have a meaningful conversation about aging when you’re in good health and not in a crisis situation.

What about you? Are these conversations happening in your family? Any tips you’d like to share?

About Advantage Home Care

Advantage Home Care provides a wide variety of in-home senior services that includes medication reminders and picking up prescriptions from the pharmacy. If you would like to learn more about our caregivers and the services we offer, please visit our websitesend us an email or give us a call at 1-888-846-1410 or 207-699-2570.

Our blog is written by Diane Atwood, who also writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood. Let us know if there is a particular topic you’d like us to cover.

Categories: Blog and Healthy Living, Safety and Fitness.

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