hand of two women at a table with title of article talking with aging parents.

Talking with Aging Parents: Cooperation or Conflict?

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Lara Osis & Maureen Osis

You know the feeling. You have noticed some changes in your parents and it’s making you nervous for them, and you know you need to talk to them about it.  You worry that the conversation could quickly turn into an argument, and end with both of you having hurt feelings and no resolution to your concerns.  Let’s look at ways for talking with aging parents that can lead to cooperation rather than conflict.

Setting up the conversation

Before you even start the conversation, think about your expectations for the outcome. If you need to discuss a major issue like driving or relocating, expect that you will need more than one conversation to come to a decision.  If the issue is a highly emotionally one, such as a financial matter or the need for more medical or home care, expect that you may encounter resistance even to having the conversation.  It may be necessary to limit your expectations.  Decide that the first conversation will be finding out what your parent is thinking and feeling about the situation.

You can help set up a conversation by giving your parent a newspaper or magazine article that discusses that topic. Later, ask what they thought about the article.

Another strategy for setting up the conversation is to write a note first.  Describe your concern, and ask for a time to discuss the issue.  This way, your parent won’t feel broadsided if you bring up the topic.  Anytime someone feels defensive, the chance of having a productive conversation is seriously diminished.

During the conversation

One of the most important elements for a successful conversation is to “listen actively.”  This means verifying that you understand your parents’ opinions by giving them feedback on what they have said, and asking them to validate your understanding of their meaning.  Also, ask for feedback on what you have said to make sure that they have understood you as well.  

To be able to listen actively, you need to suspend your judgments while listening. This does not mean agreeing with every point, but if your parent feels judged for choices they are making the conversation will quickly become an argument.  One way to manage this is to ask open-ended questions.  These are questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response and often begin with “how”, “why” or “what”.  Try to understand your parents’ needs, their fears and their hopes.

It is also important to keep in mind the physical surroundings for the conversations.  Choose a place and a time that will remove barriers to listening – free of distractions, preoccupations, and interruptions.  Show that you are paying attention by maintaining eye contact and nodding while they are speaking.

After the conversation

Afterwards, it may be helpful to review the conversation. Think about what was said and how it was said.  Also, think about what information you got by reading between the lines.  It may be useful to talk about how the conversation went with a friend or your partner. They may have a different viewpoint or be able to offer new insights about what worked and what didn’t.

There may have been questions raised that need some type of follow-up.  For example, maybe you both admitted that you don’t know about the availability and costs of specific types of services.  You may need to do some research; consider making some phone calls and doing some online searches before having another conversation.  

Check in with your parent.  How do they feel after some time has passed?  Was there a new idea that occurred to them?  Or did they come away from the conversation with a better understanding of your concerns?  Any of these outcomes means that you are on the right track.

Sometimes people get fooled into thinking that because our parents have been with us since the start of our lives, talking to them should be easy. Or, that they should understand what we mean without having to explain. Try some of the ideas in this article to help you have conversations with aging parents that lead to cooperation instead of conflict.

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Conversations with your aging parents. Cooperation or Conflict?

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Tough Conversations with Aging Parents & Family

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