How to Have Difficult Conversations With Elderly Parents

Getting started is often the hardest part. Here's some advice on how to have difficult conversations with elderly parents as you begin noticing issues.

Once you notice a worrisome change with your aging parents, the next step is to talk to them about it. For many of us, though, knowing how to have difficult conversations with elderly parents isn’t second nature.

What if your parent stubbornly won’t listen, deflects, takes offense or shuts you down? There can be a variety of reactions, especially if you’re bringing up sensitive concerns such as your older parents living independently in their own home.

But don’t let the “what ifs” stop you from broaching a very important topic. Here’s some manageable advice on having “the talk” with your aging mom or dad.

Seek to understand

Start by asking your parent how he or she is feeling – and then describe your own feelings, says Shawn Bennis, a registered nurse and the C.A.R.E. program coordinator at Henry Ford Health System.

For example, he explains, you could say, “I’ve noticed that – fill in the blank – and I’m concerned about you,” as a possible way to initiate the conversation.

“Asking the person about how they’re feeling – truly getting at their feelings – will help the conversation and everything else can come after that,” Bennis says.

Are they feeling sad? Frustrated? Lonely? “They need to work through those emotions before they can make any real changes.”

Connect to feelings

Aging can bring with it any number of difficult emotions for parents as they lose abilities they had previously.

“There’s a lot of embarrassment and shame that can come as you’re dealing with some of the challenges of aging,” says Bennis. “It’s almost a grieving process because of the loss of identity, whether that’s through a sudden change in health from a stroke or heart attack, or it comes more gradually.

“There’s a sense of loss of themselves and of what they once were.”

Get at the goals

Understanding your parents’ goals for their lives – both short- and long-term – can be a helpful way to guide the conversation.

As part of that discussion, you might ask leading questions about how they’re planning for that goal. “No one likes being told what to do, but if you come up with the idea yourself, it’s often easier to follow through,” Bennis says.

For instance, does your parent see himself still living in his home a year or five years from now, or would he like to downsize for easier upkeep? If he’s planning on selling, talk through the steps and timing that he’ll need to make his goal possible.

Keep talking

Overall, having regular discussions with your parents will help make it easier when you need to bring up more sensitive topics.

And if you find it’s too challenging for you to do this on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out to a health care provider or community caregiver support group for help.


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