Communicating With Aging Parents
or Other Loved Ones
One the greatest challenges in life we face is communicating with aging parents or loved ones about their health issues and concerns about their safety. It is walking a fine line with many aging adults, because aging involves so many losses. As we age, we want to hold onto areas of life that we can control, even it is not in our best interest. The aging adult is very different for past generations. They are a very diverse group in many ways. We are an aging population that is more diverse ethnically, economically and socially.
Other things that affect communications are family dynamics, personalities, and culture. The aging adult's perspective can be very different from yours. Many of the subjects such as medical issues, housing, or financial issues are very sensitive and emotionally laden. Approaching your aging loved one is like walking a tight rope. You can easily fall between helping and advising to what the aging adult perceives as “taking over”
As hard as it is to hear, the first thing that you, as concerned as you are about your aging loved one is, that it is not your life. Your parent is not a child. Although you feel as if the roles have been reversed, it is critical that you become a better communicator. Many aging adults alienate themselves from family members, come to mistrust one or even all of the family members. In many cases, family members cannot agree on what needs to be addressed and what is best for the aging adult. It is important to preserve your family relationships.
Family dynamics change as the aging adult declines physically and/or mentally. Many families do not address the issues of the aging adult until a crisis occurs. Hasty decisions are made and lifelong sibling dynamics can result in hurt feelings and hostility toward the decision maker. One study found that 40 percent of adult children providing assistance reported serious conflict with a sibling, usually related to lack of sufficient help from that sibling.
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Suggestions for better communications
It is important to remember that quality of life, maintaining some autonomy and independence is the main concern for your aging loved one. Recent research on successful aging found that control over ones life is the key to mental and physical health.
So it is important that when communicating with your aging loved one, make recommendations versus decisions. Good solutions begin with healthy conversations, not arguing.
Plan ahead when and where to have the conversation. Pick a place and time when there is quite and no distractions.
When speaking with it is important that you use “I”; statements. Speak in terms of “My feelings”, “My thought”, “I” statements can open the communications to negotiation and sharing, “You” statements can lead to confrontation and close down the lines of communication.
Consider having trusted and respected friend of your aging loved one present. Having someone who is trusted by both parties may make things easier.
Be clear about the topic of discussion with your family member. The key here is to open the lines of communication and keep them open. Talk, listen and share.
Learn about what is important, what are their concerns, what scares or worries them. Ask open ended questions such as:
Have you given any thought to what could happen is you were hospitalized?
Do you ever think of what is important to you regarding your plans for the future?
While things are going well for you, have you given any thoughts to what your options are if an emergency occurred and your health status changed?
Do not do all the talking. It is important to listen and acknowledge their concerns and questions. Give the others time to process and think about what you are presenting. Going too fast can lead to misunderstandings. Encourage your loved one to talk and avoid interrupting or criticizing. It may be hard, but have patience and allow sufficient time for a response.
When communicating with aging parents realize that you may have to have ongoing conversations on a subject over a period of time.
Respect that others may agree or disagree.
Be assertive and clear about your beliefs and your point of view without denying others their rights and own perspectives.
Be aware of your own feelings and reactions. Sometimes, this may mean taking time to reflect on how you may react to certain subjects and consider how to respond in a way that might help the conversation move along. It is also important to find ways to keep any negative and angry reactions in check during these conversations.
Be considerate, but honest, regarding medical conditions, financial issues, safety concerns or other topics that may need to be addressed. Address your and others willingness and ability to help.
Encourage your aging loved one to make independent decisions for as long as possible. Make them aware that you are there to support them, communicate their wished to others, and available to assist when they are ready for that assistance.
Be aware of your tone of voice. Do not blame others and do not show your anxiety or fear. Our tension may come across as judging others or being defensive, your concern will be lost to your loved one if you are afraid and uncomfortable. This can distract from the conversation and result in our aging loved one not paying attention and losing sight of how much we care about them and the goal of the meeting.
Do not try to accomplish too much too quickly. End the discussion as soon as you feel that your aging loved one is starting to feel tired or threatened. The aging loved one may become defensive. Too often, people mistake defensiveness as a lack of love. And don't believe that if your aging loved agrees means they will agree with you after giving more thought on the subject.
Be prepared to revisit tough issues several times. It is important to approach your aging loved one with this is a team approach attitude. And as a team, you will work together to accomplish the goals and wishes of the aging adult. If you are a naturally competitive individual, you may find yourself competing with your aging parent/parents rather than working together. Even if you have the best of intentions. One way around this is to be clear that the goal is for the “team” of both of you to figure out what is best for the entire family.
Do not be surprised if the discussion comes to end before you want it to. It is important that to treat every discussion as a door opener, that is, an opportunity to get the ball rolling, rather than the time everything has to be decided upon.
If your attempts to open the line of communication have failed, you may want to consider getting help from someone else. You can suggest involving another person in the family or friend with whom your parents respect and values their opinion. Or, you may try a larger family gathering and have a family meeting. This meeting can be supported by a third party neutral party such as a clergy person, a care manager or an elder care mediator. A care manager can assess what's needed, arrange for services, help with legal, financial, and insurance issues, coordinate various government , private and community services, offer counseling and act as a liaison for families who are local or distant.