How to Initiate Difficult Conversations with Your Aging Parents

Initiating certain conversations with our aging parents can be intimidating. Whether the topic is  giving up driving, moving to a senior living community, accepting more help, or adhering to doctor’s orders, just thinking about broaching the topic can make us want to bury our heads in the sand like an ostrich. But when it comes to caregiving, it never pays to procrastinate.

So to help you address the tough stuff, here are some tips on how to initiate difficult conversations with your aging parents.

Remember, it’s a process. The “conversation” is actually a series of conversations. Don’t expect to sit down, make a request or share your point of view and be done with it.  Important issues are rarely resolved through one conversation. Prepare yourself that this is a process, take a long view, and relax. The only thing difficult about these conversations should be the topic; the interactions don’t need to be adversarial – at least not on your side!

Listen before you talk. Never start a conversation about potential life changes by sharing what you have observed or you think. Instead start by asking your parents open-ended questions about how they are doing or what concerns they may have. In order to start a true dialogue, you need to really listen. Otherwise, you’ll have the same one-sided conversation over and over. What are your parent’s concerns? What ideas and solutions have they thought about or are they open to? Remember, these decisions are ultimately about their life, not just yours. What are you hearing and how can you address it?

Ask yourself, “Is this for me or for my parent?” Often times when we think something is best for our parents, the truth is, it’s actually best for us. Maybe you’re worried about your parent falling at home and you would feel better if they moved to assisted living. YOU would feel better. Would they feel better? Maybe they want to remain in their home but are open to wearing a Lifeline so they can signal if they need help, or maybe they are willing to install grab rails in the bathroom. Of course sometimes what you’re proposing is good for everyone involved, just make sure you’re clear on why you are raising an issue.

Go for small wins. Perhaps, when you do broach a challenging topic, your parent shuts you down immediately. Don’t give up and try not to react negatively. Ask yourself if there is a small win you can pursue.  For example, if you propose your parent stops driving  and they give you a flat out “No,” will they agree not to drive at night, or only to drive on surface streets instead of highways?

Do your homework before you begin. The more information you have, the better you’ll be able to address any fears and concerns that your parents may have. Gather information before the discussion What does assisted living cost? Is Meals on Wheels available in their neighborhood?  What are some available transportation options if they stop driving? Have the facts, but present them as options.

Value autonomy as well as safety. Remember, your parent is an  adult and ultimately decisions about their lives are up to them (barring any significant cognitive decline). Their autonomy is as valid a consideration as is their safety.

You’ve got this. Just take it slow. Listen more than you talk. Remain calm and open to ideas, and remind yourself and your parent, your heart is in the right place and your intentions are good.

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