Hard Conversations Made Easier: How to Speak with Aging Parents

(By Vanessa Woznow, Marketing and Communication Strategist, United Way of the Lower Mainland — reprinted with permission)

Conversations about housing, finances and health care can be hard. These subjects can be even more difficult to broach with an aging parent. Many of us struggle, asking ourselves: When is the right time to have these conversations? Can I tell my mum that I worry about her falling? How do I talk about my parents’ drivers licenses without overstepping their autonomy? How do I talk to them about their wishes if they die? And can I build their trust, instead of breaking it down?

“No matter who we’re talking with, or what we’re talking about, communication and empathy go hand in hand,” says Grace Hann, Supervisor and Trainer of Volunteers with the Jewish Seniors Alliance.

In her role at JSA Grace runs a program that matches volunteer senior peer support workers with individuals of the same age in the community. Many of her program’s clients experience challenges shared by other older adults across Canada, including isolation, transitional health problems, vision and hearing loss, and grief.

“We ask our volunteers to put themselves into a client’s situation from an empathetic perspective. Otherwise, how can they understand the experience of the person who needs help? We can’t just assume to know what is right for them.”

Understanding and addressing issues relevant to older adults in our community is increasingly important. By 2036, the number of residents over the age of 65 will double across Canada. “It’s important that we have conversations – whether they be about quality of life, about driving licenses or even about that slippery rug – before they reach a crisis point,” says Grace. “This way, we may not necessarily need to take action right away, but we are laying the foundation to ensure that when action needs to be taken, we have something to build from.”

Grace recommends keeping the following tips in mind as you begin, and continue to have conversations with the older adults in your lives. And remember, the more we talk about hard things, the easier they become.

Start Talking Early
It can be very hard for a child to bring up a conversation with a parent for fear of overstepping boundaries. It can be equally hard for a parent to reach out to ask a child for help.

“The best thing to do is start conversations early, when there isn’t a problem,” says Grace. “If you leave it too long and you get to a period of crisis, it is incredibly hard to find a solution that works for anybody.”

Ask for Permission
“Conversations are not ultimatums,” says Grace. Simply asking, ‘Do you mind if we have a chat?’” ensures our parents are equal partners in the discussion.”

She also recommends asking for your parent’s permission to relay information gleaned from the conversation to other family members.

“Ask, ‘Mum, is it okay if I tell other family members what you’ve told me?’ This way, everyone is on the same page, and no one is surprised to find out something they told in confidence has become common knowledge.”

Mind Your (body) Language
When having hard conversation, it’s important to understand how we are communicating with others – with both our words and body.

“Look at how you are sitting,” says Grace. “Are you hunched into yourself? Are your arms crossed? That can indicate a lack of openness.”

Focus instead on keeping a neutral body stance during the conversation. Let’s say you’re talking to a parent about whether it’s still safe for them to drive. If you’re sitting, place your hands on your knees, or keep them folded in your lap. Face the person, keep strong, friendly eye contact and avoid fiddling with papers, rings or articles of clothing.

Use Your ‘I’s
“An ‘I statement’ is an excellent tool for conversations because it’s an introduction to a discussion and not a resolution to a problem,” says Grace. “It’s non-defensive communication.”

Being able to tell someone how you feel, and not what they should or should not be doing, allows you to stay out of their space, while learning how they feel about the same situation.

Always Include an Ask
“You’d be surprised by how powerful simply asking, ‘Is there anything you’d like to talk about?’”, says Grace.

Creating a neutral space for your parent to fill can relieve stress and make it easier for them to ask for help.

Keep Talking Often
Silence can breed miscommunication and misunderstanding, so it’s important to keep the lines of communication open.

“Think of it this way,” says Grace. “If a parent is sitting at home all day, but doesn’t feel like he can reach out to his child to pick him up for fear of bothering him, his child might think that he is happy being at home. He doesn’t know otherwise.

“If we know right off the bat that Dad’s priority is to stay active and outdoors, it won’t escalate to a point of resentment or poor health.”

Re-frame Decision Making
Once a child takes on the role of caregiver, some things will begin to shift. Our parents may feel as though we are taking charge, which can be very hard for individuals who are used to being decision makers.

Grace believes in the importance of acknowledging this role.

“You can say, ‘Mum, I really like how you’ve done this.’ Or, ‘Dad, you did a really great job with that.’ Then ask, ‘Would you like my support as you continue to make future decisions based on difficulties you may encounter?’”

Know Your Roles, Know Your Limits
Think of your family as a well-oiled machine.

When we understand the role that everyone plays, we can support each other to get to the outcomes we want. We can also hold ourselves accountable to our shared objective: keeping our parents healthy.

It’s important also to understand our limits.

“As a parent’s health declines,” says Grace, “there needs to be on-going conversations and resources available to every family member. Be sure to have your own set of supports so that you too don’t get to the point of crisis. Everyone needs to be taken care of – the parent, the siblings and the family together.”