Tips to Remember for Improving Communication with Elderly or Aging Parents

Let’s face it.  We’ve all had difficult patches with our parents now and again.  Most likely, the worst of it was during those “rebellious teen” years when we all struggled to make our own way and assert our own independence.And in a strange (and perhaps ironic) twist of fate and aging – in many ways our elderly parents are now dealing with those same issues.   They find themselves trying to make their own way and maintain their individual sense-of-self, while slowly losing the independence they deserve and have truly earned.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a few simple tips that would make this process easier for everyone involved – for your parents, or for your siblings…for you?   But – as with all things family – it’s generally more complicated than simple. And this is one of those (many) times when it really is easier said than done. However…even if we can’t make things easy, we can share some “tips to remember” that may help you along the way.

1.  Remember…listening is the heart of good communication.  Try listening to everything – both what your parent is saying – and also to what they aren’t saying.  For example, if your parent is resistant to taking a new medication what is you’re their stated concern – and is there an underlying and unstated issue at play?  Yes, it could be the side effects, or simple forgetfulness…but they could also be just a little bit “ticked” at the aging process and the effect it’s having on their body.

2.  Remember…it’s much easier to have tough conversations when you are talking.  OK, we did oversimplify that one a bit – but sometimes the truest things are simply stated.  Maintaining a regular (yes, schedule it if that helps) channel of communication now will make the more difficult conversations you have later (e.g., about relinquishing car keys, moving or aging in place, and end-of-life wishes) just a little bit easier. And remember to consider your parent’s preferred channel of communication…do they love a good phone gab, prefer the written word and “snail mail” or are they masters of the electronic domain looking for you to e-mail, text or even Skype with them?

3.  Remember…you are a team and “in this” together.  While the demands of aging may require you to slowly reverse roles – your parent is still your parent.  Whenever possible, try to respect their wishes and avoid phrases that start with “You have to…” Ask questions, always offer multiple ideas (rather than a single “solution”), make it a two-way conversation and look for innovative options.  For example – that pesky medication that your parent really should be taking? If forgetfulness is the issue, engage your parent in the problem-solving to identify the right reminder systems (remembering that what works for them is probably not the same thing that would work for you).

4.  Remember…to get help when you need it.  Sometimes it’s just not possible for a parent and (even a grown) child to communicate on an issue.  Consider outside “authorities” and the role that they can play in helping your parents through a difficult choice or discussion – whether a doctor, social worker, religious leader, or even a family counselor.  About that medication your parent is avoiding at all costs?  A quick call to the physician’s office to discuss alternatives (once a day, once a week, liquid with flavoring, chewable…) or to simply reinforce the importance of taking the drug by an authority figure (e.g., not their child) could provide a quick solution for everyone.

5.  Remember…to take care of yourself.  Quality-of-life is important for you too.  And parents who love you will sense your stress.  Sooo…it really is true – taking care of yourself is a critical part of caring for others. You know what they say: laughter is great medicine.  Don’t forget to incorporate humor into your own life, and in conversations with your parents.

Whenever possible, look for opportunities to share the communication and caregiving workload with friends and family. (And maybe even “try out” or share some of these Tips to Remember with the other caregivers you are working with!)

 

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