Communicating with Aging Parents

The holiday meal is planned. Candles come down off the shelves. Presents are wrapped and cards addressed. We look forward to re-connecting with family. Often that includes elderly parents, aunts, uncles, and friends.

In our work with seniors and their families, we have seen many warm and easy relationships between older and younger family members. But sometimes, it seems that the two generations have little in common, resulting in long, uncomfortable silences when they meet. Or there is a difficult subject to confront like finances or in-home care. In those cases, conflict can arise. Then we hear, "I just can't talk to my parents anymore."

There are ways to deal with those situations. With a little sensitivity and consideration, the two generations can bridge the gap and find a great deal of pleasure in visits.

How to Avoid Sitting in Silence
You've been looking forward to a visit and now you're sitting together and seem to have nothing to say. This could have been avoided with a little advance planning. Before coming to visit, think what you would like to talk about. Perhaps you could bring something that might hold some interest for both of you, like recipes that you recently tried, travel magazines, or pictures of the grandchildren. Or perhaps you can ask to look at some old photo albums in the closet. These visual cues can open the door to some wonderful conversations and mutual sharing.

Sometimes the best visits are short ones. Rather than sit in silence for a couple of hours wondering what to say, shorten the visit so that it ends after you have finished talking about everything for the moment. You can always come back later.

Timing is Everything
Younger people sometimes have trouble slowing down and being fully present when talking to a senior. It is far better to limit your time and truly connect and share while you are together.

Sometimes elderly people communicate indirectly, or seem to drift off if it's a subject they don't want to discuss. Be sure to listen and consider what is being said. Even if it's a subject about which you've already made up your mind, they probably have valid points. Most importantly - don't discuss important matters when you're rushed.

How to Avoid Conflict
There are some subjects that are difficult to approach, and none so challenging as suggesting that an older person, who has enjoyed a great deal of independence, may need help keeping financial, legal, or health insurance matters organized. This conversation can become explosive if not handled carefully.

One of the best ways to encourage older adults to accept help is to position it as a strategy for living at home longer and remaining independent.

Look at the situation from their standpoint. They probably understand their years of independence are numbered, but want to maintain their dignity for as long as they can. The checkbook can often be synonymous with independence and they can be appalled that you want to take that over. If they are too proud to allow you to take over bill paying, perhaps they would agree to see an accountant or a Daily Money Manager instead.

An intermediary step can be offering to help sort mail and be with them while they do their bill paying. Or helping to write the checks and they sign them, learning their system.

If, however, the senior is adamant that they don't want help and, at this point, the only danger is a few bounced checks, you may have to back off for the time being. None-the-less, it is important to keep an eye on the situation.

NEVER Talk Baby Talk
One of the biggest mistakes when dealing with seniors is not treating them like adults, even in terms of language and tone of voice. Here is a list of adjustments often made in speech patterns that can be offensive and upsetting.

• Using a singsong voice, changing pitch and tone, exaggerating words
• Simplifying the length and complexity of sentences
• Speaking more slowly
• Using limited vocabulary
• Repeating or paraphrasing what has just been said
• Using terms like "honey" or dear"
• Using statements that sound like questions
      © 2002 The University of Kansas Merrill Advanced Studies Center

These are adults who must be treated with respect. Often they are dealing with the loss of a spouse, a friend, or driving the car. Hearing loss can also be a factor - if hearing aids are not an option, consider a transmitter and headphones. Remember, past lives and current feelings of loss can affect the conversation.

December 2011 - FEATURE
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