Major life transitions can be difficult, especially when those changes involve aging parents. Some of the most challenging transitions involve the loss of driving privileges, the need for ongoing care, financial control of assets and possibly relocating to a new residence. These are never easy conversations and often there is disagreement between parent and child about the course of action. But, how you go about talking through these issues is as important as the actual decisions. The good news is that there are solid principles that can help you talk through these tough issues and work toward a resolution that you and your parent can live with. Here are eight principles that you can immediately put into action.
1. Empathize with feelings
The best starting point is to try to step into your parent’s shoes. We usually see life through our own eyes but communicating effectively with older adults requires an empathic perspective from their point of view. When talking with older adults it is critical to understand how loss begins to define so much of their world: loss of health, finances, friends, mobility, and control, to name just a few. If we acknowledge and let them talk about these losses, it often gives us opportunities to talk about alternatives that help them retain what control they have left.
2. Practice good communication skills
Offer options and not advice. Remember to ask for your parents’ ideas and input. Express your concerns rather than telling them what they should do. Be respectful when giving your opinion. Listen carefully to their concerns and draw them out by asking open-ended questions that foster discussion rather than closed questions that are answered with a “yes” or “no.”
3. Let your parent be part of the decision-making process
Allowing them to be part of the decision-making process can be a huge asset in solving certain problems. Extending choice to our parents is one effective way of helping them feel in control. For example, if the issue under discussion is turning over their finances, you might say, “Give me your ideas of how you think this transition can best be handled?” By allowing your parent to make suggestions, you are giving them a voice and an invitation to be part of the solution. As they take that control, they are more likely to adapt to the changes that are being suggested because they are part of the decision-making.
4. Start your discussions early
Don’t wait until a crisis occurs to begin talking to your parent about some of these important transitions. Start the dialogue now. If you wait until your parents are in the midst of a health or financial crisis there may be fewer choices available to them or you may have to make decision quickly. Let your parents know you are concerned about them, and that you want to do the right thing for them as they age. This will help them better understand why you are bringing up sensitive issues.
Being more proactive on the front end, rather than reactive in a crisis, can also help to prevent some of the conflict and stress that occurs in families when a parent’s health starts to deteriorate and everyone is scrambling to find a quick resolution.
5. Include other family members
When appropriate, bring other family members, such as siblings, into the discussion. But before you bring your parents into that discussion, get all the issues on the table and assess the perspective and degree of support from siblings and other relatives. Determine whether these other family members have different opinions that could undermine what you are trying to accomplish. When there are significant differences, try to work these out before bringing it to your parent. A unified consensus among the adult children regarding these transitions for parents is always a more supportive environment than a divided and contentious family. It’s important to understand that there is not one single strategy that is going to work for every family situation and it may take many conversations or sometimes help from someone outside the family to help sort out the options.
6. Agree to disagree
When you come to the decision-making stage you may hit a wall with your parent. Your heart may tell you you’re right, and that you know what needs to be done but your parents may disagree with you. Resist the urge to push through the issue to get your way. As long as they are of sound mind and there is no immediate health crisis, their wishes should prevail. It may take many conversations over a long period of time before they see the need for change as clearly as you.
7. Strive to honor and respect your parents
Though your parents may seem to be less able than they once were, show respect for the life experience they have gained and the great sacrifices they may have made for you. Reassure them that you will be there for them as they age even though you may not see eye-to-eye on how to proceed through these life transitions.
8. Reevaluate if things aren’t working well
If you find that the conversations aren’t going well you might suggest that your parents talk with a third party-a geriatric care manager, a financial planner, counselor or a lawyer-if you think that they could use some expert assistance.
Talking with your parents about tough issues is not easy. But if approached the right way, it can strengthen and enrich your relationship with each other and be a tender way of expressing your love and care for them.