How To Communicate With Your Older Parents So They Hear You
“My mom is 81 and lives alone in her condo,” Judy Hanson writes. “Her arthritis is painful, but she gets around with a walker. Her mind is okay for now, though she is sometimes forgetful. I also feel that she is lonely.
“I’m worried about her safety and have been telling her for several years that she needs help,” she continues. “I’m not proud to say that I’ve stooped to yelling at her, but I have done it. I hate the thought of her falling and not having help, and I also think she’d be happier with more company. There’s a nice assisted living close by me so that’s where I want her to move. Will she listen? No! She just stubbornly says that she’s fine so I should leave her alone.”
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Judy’s situation is an example of what many of us face. She’s likely right that her mom would be safer if she had someone checking on her regularly. Also, depending on her mom’s personality, Judy’s mom might be happier with the easy availability of companionship that assisted living offers. Why the resistance?
- One is that on some level her mom knows this to be true, but she doesn’t want to give up her right to make her own decisions and she feels pressured to do so.
- Another might be that she just can’t imagine making the move because it’s too overwhelming. Change is generally a challenge for us at any age, but it becomes harder for most people as they grow older.
- One more reason could be that she knows someone who has been forced to move to a facility and that person is unhappy.
It’s a process
We often forget that our parents are adults who have lived long, and in most cases, responsible lives. They may have been poor parents, ordinary parents, or stellar parents, but the fact that we are trying to help them at this stage implies that they most likely did raise us. While occasionally you’ll meet an elder who willingly turns over all decisions to others, most will continue to want their autonomy. They want to make the decisions that rule their lives.
So, when they need help, what do you do? You take a step back and then try a different approach.
When possible talk with your parents about all kinds of things, not just their health and impending frailty. In other words, have real conversations.
Within those conversations, you’ll likely see opportunities to discuss their ideal wishes. Even if they are already at a stage where they probably should make adjustments in how they are living, approach it by asking how they see their future.
One way to segue into this is to ask about their friends. You probably know some of the people they’ve enjoyed for years, if not decades. Did their close neighbor Harry have a heart attack? Ask how he’s doing. When your mom says, “he had to go to a nursing home,” you can say, “Oh! That’s hard on him, though most nursing homes around here are supposed to be pretty good. If he’d had help at home, could he have gone back there?”
With this opening, you could eventually say, “If that kind of thing happened to you, what would you have ideally wanted? What would your second choice be?”
Let your parent or parents know that you want to follow their wishes if you can, and you will always do your best to care for them, but that you need information in order to do that.
One caveat. Do not ever promise that you won’t “put them in a nursing home.” Instead, say that you’ll do everything possible to follow their wishes but none of us can see the future.
Safety vs autonomy
As you have these conversations with your parents, remember this. While there are some older adults who are fearful enough that they will happily hand over decision making to others, most place their autonomy far above their personal safety. This is frequently the reason that many older adults don’t tell their children or friends about falls. They are afraid that they will then be told that they can no longer take care of themselves.
What if help is needed asap?
Try this: Rather than “Mom, you aren’t safe alone and you need help,” say, “Mom, I’m wondering if you could benefit from some help around the house?”
Suggesting some housekeeping help could open the door to the idea. From there, you could move to help with showering, medications, and other daily needs.
If she says she doesn’t want people in her home (she probably will), you could bring up assisted living. Again, mention that she might be able to benefit from this arrangement.
Make it about them, not you
Why does it matter how you present the issues? My mantra is put yourself in their place.
Sometimes it’s about fear. Other times it’s simply about saving face. Whatever the reason, ask yourself how you’d feel if someone decades younger than you suddenly started telling what you needed to do to “stay safe.”
Remember, YOU want them safe. They want to live their lives. Think about where they are rather than your fear for them.
Respect is a vital key
Before you try to create a solution for your parent’s current or future life challenges, ask how they feel about their life as they are living it. By doing so, you’ll gradually get much closer to what you’d like to see. Again, this is a process because in their view you are asking a lot of them.
Judy wrote back several weeks later somewhat mystified, but much happier. She said she had to struggle to change her own mindset, especially since she and her mom never had a great relationship, but she said that things were better. In fact, she said that she and her mom have had some of their best talks now that she (Judy) has decided to take a listener’s role rather than that of the boss.
Will Judy eventually have to move forward with changes for her mom even if her mom keeps resisting? Probably. However, remember that the less clashing of wills there is, the easier life changes can be.
Bottom line: Supporting your aging parents rather than trying to parent them – even when it might feel that you are doing the parental work – generally gets you farther with far less stress.
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Great advice as always, Carol. I wish I had known this process many years ago. But, now I do and can help others.
Carol Bradley Bursack
Thank you, Beth. It sounds as if you’ve been there!
Great advice, Carol. I’m going to share it with a friend who is in this situation
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Carol Bradley Bursack
May 22, 2020
Thank you, Craig! I’m sure that you will be helping others with what you’ve learned through the years.