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Having "The Talk" With Aging Parents

What can you do when you realize your parent needs help?

For most of us, the answer seems easy. We’ve identified a problem, now let’s fix it. After all, that’s what we do every day in our work and in our lives, right? But wait a minute. Your parents may not appreciate your just “fixing it.” So you’ve got to have a conversation. And you’ve got to approach it in a caring and collaborative way, and in a manner such that they can hear – literally as well as figuratively.

In his book, How to Say It to Seniors – Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders, David Solie provides insight, tips and examples of how to have conversations with your parents that are “pleasurable, productive and effective.” He points out that while we are driven by the need to tally achievements and fix things, the elderly are driven to “maintain control over their lives” in the face of nearly daily losses, and to “discover their legacy” or what will live on after them. These differing, age-based agendas are at the core of the communication difficulties many adult children experience with their aging parents.

Take for example a client we work with named Roger, who had as a goal for his holiday visit with his mom to discuss her finances. He had begged and pleaded with her over the past few years to share her financial situation with him. She always stoutly refused, saying her nephew, who lived close by, had all the information. Roger had checked, and the nephew knew nothing about it. It was clear Roger’s mom was not ready to give up control.

The need to maintain control, Solie says, is the result of the ongoing, irreplaceable losses the elderly suffer in areas that we take for granted, for example:

  • Loss of physical strength

  • Loss of one or more of their senses, such as hearing

  • Loss of friends and relatives

  • Loss of physical space

  • Loss of financial independence

Once we understand this, and put ourselves in the role of “facilitator” to help them maintain a level of control, the conversation – and the outcome – changes.

We shared this framework with Roger and suggested he approach the conversation with his mom this way: “Mom, I worry about you – I want to be sure that you’ll have enough money to live life the way you want to. It would really put my mind at ease if I could look at your income, savings and expenses. Do you think we could spend some time gathering that while I’m visiting over the holiday?”

Roger contacted us a few days later and told us it worked! She agreed, and also offered to spend some time before the visit getting some of the information together.

If you have stories about how your attempts at these conversations have gone awry, we would love to hear from you. We can brainstorm more effective ways to approach the conversation.

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