While many people consciously plan for having children, most do not consider that they may someday be “having” an elderly parent. Adult children of older loved ones often report being caught off guard by their older parent’s needs. Many families deny the changes taking place with their elderly parents, even when role reversal has clearly begun. Most people don’t recognize what normal aging really looks like so they have trouble distinguishing illnesses from the norm. It can also be hard to comprehend how much Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance won’t be paying for when significant help is needed for the senior.

Adult children often report one of the most uncomfortable parts of this role reversal is discussing tough topics with their parents. Some of these loaded topics include finances, memory and mental health, driving, moving, bringing help into the home and end of life. Here are 7 tips to improve communication with your older loved one:

1. Create an agenda. When you decide that it’s time to discuss some tough topics with your older parent, set an agenda for yourself. Think about what your goals are for the conversation. Consider whether a public setting, such as a restaurant, would be a better location for the conversation rather than at home. Changing the venue to Mom’s favorite cafe rather than the kitchen in which you spent your childhood can make the discussion less intimidating.

In planning an agenda, it is important to contemplate the desired outcome of this particular conversation. Are you hoping Mom will agree by the end of the conversation to make a change or is this conversation going to be the first gentle introduction of a complex topic?

2. Educate yourself. Learn about the aging process as much as you can. When you understand what normal aging truly looks like, it will help you to determine what is going on with your older loved ones. Dementia, depression and anxiety disorders are not part of the normal aging process. On the other hand, some functions like reflexes and metabolism are less efficient for everyone as we get older. When you understand more about what’s to be expected at your parent’s age, you will have an easier time helping them to understand. When you are researching aging online, be sure to visit websites established by credible organizations such as National Institute on Aging (www.nia.nih.gov) and Alliance for Aging Research (www.agingresearch.org).

3. Set a good example. If you want to discuss your parents’ end of life plans, show them a copy of your will and advance directives. Everyone over eighteen years old should have these documents. When your older loved one sees that you have your finances and healthcare decisions in order, particularly when you are several decades younger, it may motivate them to do the same. This can easily segue into a conversation about money and wishes about end of life care.

4. Be persistent. Understand that most of the time these tough conversations will require several attempts before you get results. Be on the lookout for situations that provide natural openings for revisiting a difficult topic. A frequent catalyst for a productive change discussion is when a peer of the older parent is hospitalized, becomes ill or moves.

5. Empathize. While persistence is necessary with these tough conversations, empathy and patience are important too. Through your body language, tone of voice and word choices, show that you understand your parent may feel uncomfortable discussing some of these subjects. For example, maybe your mother is ashamed of her recent car accident and is terrified of losing the independence driving represents. It is important to acknowledge her feelings while discussing the reality of her diminishing abilities behind the wheel.

6. Explain how it’s affecting you. If you are asking your mother to see a doctor because she seems to lack energy, explain why it’s important to you and others she cares about. Have her granddaughters noticed that she hasn’t been coming to their softball games anymore? Have you been late to work four times in the past month because Mom calls you each morning to discuss worries about her health? Consider keeping a written log of how the issue is affecting you and other loved ones and refer to it before the conversation. Often specific examples of how a parent’s behavior is impacting others can prompt change better than conversations on why taking action would be best for the parent.

7. Involve others who care about your parent. Sometimes the person closest to the older loved one is not always the most effective communicator during these conversations. Often persons less involved with the senior’s daily life can be invaluable in emphasizing the need to discuss these tough topics. Perhaps a trusted minister or rabbi can help a senior understand the benefits of addressing end of life decisions ahead of time, while acknowledging fears around death. A respected friend of the family who works in healthcare may be able to better explain the age-related changes that make driving more difficult without making the senior feel guilty. Perhaps you have a brother that lives across the country and Mom tends to listen more closely to what he says because she sees him less frequently.

Some adult children are reluctant to involve others in these important conversations because they don’t want to violate the parent’s privacy or because there is some embarrassment that they can’t get through to them. Ultimately, the results of the conversations are what matters.

Most of us have heard the quote “it takes a village to raise a child.” With tough and sensitive topics such as driving, memory, finances and end of life, adult children need to apply this concept when attempting to help their older parents. Seeking help from trusted friends, family and professionals can help you prepare for the tough conversations facing anyone dealing with an aging parent.

Mature market expert and gerontologist Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.
Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP is a speaker and consultant on age diversity, older customers, caregiving & dementia. She is the President of Jenerations Health Education & an Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. For more information please visit www.jenerationshealth.com.

Please click here to download a photo of Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.