How to Talk to Older Loved Ones About Difficult Subjects

Conversations between adults in midlife and their elderly parents can often be challenging, especially when the topic is the care they need or considering a major change such as a move into an assisted living facility. Sensitive and straightforward communication can make these conversations much easier.

One thing to remember when talking with elderly loved ones is that your different stages of life mean that your style and pace are different. You may be at a time in your life when you are very busy, building on career accomplishments, raising children, and taking on other responsibilities. Meanwhile, your parents may be slowing down, letting go of responsibilities, and trying to enjoy their retirement. They may also be apprehensive about growing older. Keep all of this in mind when talking about difficult or important subjects, and adjust your timing and tone accordingly. In order to have a conversation about major life changes, it is important to set aside enough time to address the concerns that come up.

Simply listening is one of the most important communication skills, and it applies even more in conversation with older loved ones whose lives may not be as fast-paced as your own. Listening shows proper respect for your parents and allows you to understand their concerns. If your parents are not suffering from dementia or otherwise disabled, then decisions about their care are ultimately theirs to make, and understanding their feelings can help you both arrive at a solution that meets their needs and yours. If their condition is such that you will be the ultimate decision maker, then it is even more important to listen to your parents’ concerns, so as to properly address any fears they may have.

Although the subject of what care an elderly parent needs can be a sensitive one, there is no substitute for direct communication. While maintaining a respectful tone, tell your parents exactly what they need to hear, whether it is that it is no longer safe for them to drive, or that they need help managing their finances. Putting the subject front and center can clear the air and allow both you and your parents to bring up any concerns you may have. In the case of an elderly loved one who has Alzheimer’s or other dementia, it can be important to have a doctor communicate this diagnosis to them directly. This establishes their symptoms as a medical fact, not a matter of your perception.

Finally, it is important to know when to back off and let a matter rest for a while. Talking about difficult subjects can bring up unexpected emotions, and sometimes it is enough to have broached the subject. Both you and your parents may need time to think about the matter before a decision is made. However, with careful communication, these types of conversations can be calm and productive.

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