The seismic shock of role reversal. It’s something most people face as their parents age. Parents who were once competent and in charge become more dependent on senior care. You, who once turned to them for help and advice, now have to take a leadership role. You guide their choices and solve their problems. You help them make life-altering decisions about their future.
If it helps at all, you’re not alone. Baby boomers, those people born between the years of 1946 and 1964, according to the AARP report, Approaching 65: A Survey of Baby Boomers Turning 65 Years Old, represent, at 76 million, “the largest single population growth in U.S. history.” Ten thousand baby boomers approach retirement age every single day. All of these people, and their loved ones, are facing the serious life changes – and challenges – brought on by aging.
The first step in helping your aging parents is to talk. About their senior care needs. About the problems that need to be addressed. About your concerns. But the going can be dicey. Some parents haven’t accepted their loss of independence and need for senior care; they’re not ready to relinquish their role as head of the family. Others may still see their long-since-grown children as just that, children, not adults. Throw in the possibility that the relationship was already contentious, as many parent-child relationships are, then add some prickly personalities, made more so by aging, and head-on discussions can turn into mine fields.
Afraid to wade in? Wondering how to start a conversation on a tricky topic? Here are some tips. They can help you broach difficult topics with – perhaps – difficult people, without setting off any emotionally damaging landmines.
As people age, they face a myriad of life-altering events and choices. Many of which are uncomfortable to broach. Failing health. Senior care. Fragile finances. Memory loss. End of life issues. Here are a few tips that can help you tackle these difficult topics together.
Set the Stage
Make sure you choose a calm, quiet, familiar setting before you start a serious conversation with your parents. Make sure you have plenty of time together and that you won’t be interrupted. Sitting at home around the kitchen table is a great setting – in your minivan driving to your child’s T-ball game, not so much.
Don’t Plan an Ambush
No one likes to feel sucker punched. If you have a serious concern that you want to address with your parents, be upfront about it. Tell them what you’d like to talk about and why it’s weighing on your mind.
Listen More Than You Talk
If you’ve been mulling over a particular problem for some time, it might be tempting to simply jump in and announce the solutions you’ve come up with. Don’t go there. Let your parents air their side of the issue, express their own concerns and present any answers they might have in mind.
Plan What You’re Going to Say
Starting a serious talk off on the right foot is key. You want your parents to understand that you’re motivated by your concern for them. Express that concern, then ask how you can help. Good conversation starters could include, “We’ve noticed you’re having a little trouble around the house, lately. Is there anything we can do for you?” Or, “I know you’ve been seeing your doctor a lot lately. I can be your sounding board if you have decisions to make.”
Keep it Brief
Topics heavy with emotion can be exhausting – for all parties. Plan to address them over several short sessions rather than all at once. If your aging parents live with you, this should be easy. Make the discussion part of your everyday life. If your parents live nearby, reach out regularly. Schedule a weekly lunch together, for instance. If your parents live across the country, plan to talk with them every Sunday, for example, using the phone or Skype. Ask about their lives, let them tell you what’s new in their world, then bring up the other, more important topics such as senior care.
Write it Down
Once you’ve made some decisions together, write it down; especially if you’re dealing with someone with signs of dementia. If your loved one won’t remember the conversation you’ve had or the things you’ve agreed on, it can help to say, “Here’s the list of decisions we wrote down the other day.”
Nothing makes talking about difficult topics more challenging than, well, difficult people. If your parents are likely to get their backs up before you even get to the topic at hand, here are some tips that may help smooth those ruffled feathers.
Lay Down the Judgment
If you have difficult parents, or a contentious history with them, you’ll have to tread lightly when starting a conversation. Make sure that none of your statements sound judgmental. One good trick? Don’t point out the mistakes you see them making, start by discussing your own concerns and fears.
Set Your Feelings Aside
During the course of your discussion, your own feelings may be hurt. If your parents feel defensive, they may react by attacking you and the choices you’ve made – probably all the way back to junior high, they’ve known you a long time, after all. Lay your feelings aside for the moment. Remember that you love these people and want what’s best for them. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, after all, it’s about trying to have a productive conversation.
The more your parents resist your input, the more important it is to listen to theirs. You don’t want to appear as if you’ve already decided what they should do without their consent. Ask them what they think is best or how they plan to solve a particular problem. Who knows? They may have already come up with some appropriate solutions.
Sharpen Your Communication Skills
Every conversation is a two way street. If communication has broken down, the problem might not always be with your parents. Be a good listener, for example, letting your parents talk without interruption. Pay attention to your tone of voice. You don’t want to sound irritated or dismissive. Paraphrase what you hear your parents saying, and repeat it back to them. This not only keeps misunderstandings at a minimum, it can also reassure your parents that you really do understand what they’re trying to say.
Could it be Dementia?
An uncooperative demeanor, even outright anger, can be the disguise of dementia. Look carefully at your parents’ behavior. Many older people try to hide their memory loss from family members out of fear or embarrassment, according to the Forbes article, “The Danger of Your Aging Parent Covering up Dementia.” Diagnosis doesn’t matter, however. According to the article, what matters is “how your aging parent functions.” Recognizing the symptoms – even if they present as crankiness – then seeking solutions, should be your top priority.
Whether you’re faced with wrangling difficult topics – or difficult people – the complex issues facing your aging parents are simply too important to ignore. If you truly love them, take a deep breath, remember these tips, then step up to the plate and start the conversation.