Caregiving Conversations

4 strategies for communicating successfully with an aging parent.

elderly man

Clara always had a contentious relationship with her mother, whom she found controlling and critical. But Clara's mom, once so strong-willed and stubborn, was becomingly increasingly frail.

Is talking about the needs of our aging parents uncomfortable? You bet it is. Topics such as money, health status, end-of-life care and driving are often emotional land-mines for both parent and child. How do we deal with this distress? Instead of acting like adults, we revert to childish techniques: we walk on eggshells, beat around the bush, or avoid uncomfortable topics altogether. For our parents, these subjects stir up fears of losing autonomy and control. For us, these topics ignite our own sense of vulnerability and sadness.

What's the result? Many baby boomers, accustomed to their to-do lists and action items, treat the conversation as a fait accompli: "Mom, I'm concerned that you're not safe at home. So I've researched assisted living and I think it's best for you." Does this work? Nope. This approach is often met with denial and resistance.

So what did Clara do?

"When I initially broached the subject of my mother needing help at home she scoffed. I was frustrated and told her she was being stubborn, as usual. But after consulting an elder care expert, I approached the subject differently. This time, I was coming from a place of concern and love. This conversation went differently. My mother confided that she was profoundly afraid of becoming dependent on me. She dreaded how that would affect our relationship. So we worked out a plan to hire caregivers to assist my mother at home and for me to come by on weekends to help out."

Clara realized she had more success approaching her mother in an empathic and sensitive manner rather than starting the conversation with her own worries and fears. In reality, "the conversation" is a series of discussions. It takes time to learn what our parents' wishes are as they age.

Here are four ways we can communicate better and ensure that our loved ones get the best care possible:

  1. Form a Team
    If you have siblings, discuss your concerns together before broaching the subject with your parents. Hear each other's perspectives with an open mind and come up with a plan to hold a family meeting. Agree to communicate as a unified front. Letting conflicts simmer to the surface will only derail your efforts. (Learn how to navigate the 3 senior care issues siblings fight about most.)

  2. Research Options Ahead of Time
    Pave the road before you begin your journey. Learn about community resources -- local area councils on aging, senior centers and home care agencies. Research different types, costs and availability of care -- be informed about what choices are most realistic for your parents' needs. (See what senior care costs in your area.)

  3. Seek Professional Expertise
    If you fear your mother is showing signs of dementia, ensure that she have a thorough medical evaluation for dementia. If you are unsure of whether your father is eligible for Medicaid, consult with an elder law attorney in the state where your Dad resides. If you need help sorting out the options for care, seek the expertise of a geriatric care manager (typically a social worker or a nurse), who can help guide you and your family through the caregiving process. (Understand the importance of hiring an elder care lawyer.)

  4. Learn to Back Off
    Might you tend to be too forceful in your approach? Who could blame you for trying...but it would be a shame to let the struggle for control eclipse your well-intended efforts. It may be painful to bear witness to your parents' bad decisions. But they have the right to make them, unless they are deemed medically incompetent or a danger to others (with, for example, unsafe driving). Resistance is common, and the best way to address it is through understanding, patience, and even humor! (Get tips for talking to your parent about driving.)

As you experience both the challenges and rewards of caregiving, remember that your parents remain your parents. Even as they grow more infirmed and dependent with age, remember their role as your initial caregivers. Ongoing communication -- before a crisis ensues -- is one of the most important strategies. With these thoughts in mind, it's easier to respect and honor your parents' wishes and continue to support them, even as they face the fragility of old age.

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Comments (1)
Photo of Amy F.
Amy F.
Great suggestions Jody! I have witnessed families countless times be reactive as opposed to proactive. Unfortunately the burden of researching, coordinating and delivering care for the elder falls completely on the primary caregiver. To take the unnecessary stress out of the experience be proactive.....easier transition on the aging parents and increases the success of coordinating the skilled care our seniors deserve. One of the toughest conversations of my life was asking for the keys to my grandmothers' car. I think she wanted to "Spank Me."
Posted: August 04, 2012 at 2:24 PM
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