Guide to Having an Open Dialogue with Your Aging Parent About Change

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open dialogue with parent

Maybe you’ve noticed that your dad’s having a harder time getting around or your mom is letting mail pile up on her kitchen table. You’re starting to wonder whether your parent is able to take care of themselves as well as they used to. When concerns such as these arise, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your loved one about what you’re noticing. But these conversations can be uncomfortable — for both you and your parent. If you’re wondering how to have this difficult conversation with your parents, here are some suggestions to help you ease the discomfort and move toward your goal — supporting your parents so they can enjoy their lives as much as possible.

Center in Empathy

Part of the discomfort inherent in these difficult conversations with a parent is the role-reversal as you take on more responsibility for your parent’s well-being. While it might be new territory for you, it’s likely frightening territory for your parent — declining health is scary. Denial and resistance are common reactions to fear.  Entering the conversation with the understanding that your parent is likely feeling fear and grief can help you stay centered and calm if they have a negative reaction to what you say.

Be Open

It can help to be honest about what you’ve noticed and let your parent know you’re feeling concerned about them. Invite your parent to be open, too. Ask how they are experiencing these new challenges and what solutions they are considering. Honesty will foster a spirit of cooperation as you discuss and, ultimately, decide on a solution.

Practice Diplomacy

This is a time to bring out your best communication skills. Instead of “should statements,” which create feelings of pressure, reframe your statements as questions, such as “Does it work to …?” or “What do you think about …?” Asking questions creates an atmosphere of respect and mutuality. Life coach and author Martha Beck recommends using the phrase, “Tell me where I’m wrong.” You may not be wrong, but the phrase provides space for your parent’s voice and input. Creativity coach Jill Badonsky suggests normalizing — letting your parent know their fears and struggles are normal — which can make them feel less defensive and more open to new possibilities.

Find the Common Ground

The conversation may go more smoothly if you emphasize that you and your parent have a shared goal — ensuring your parent is safe and enjoying a high quality of life.

Address Issues Early

Talking about your concerns early allows you and your parent to be proactive rather than reactive. You have the time to formulate a sound plan shaped by your parent’s wishes, rather than being forced by crisis to make hasty decisions.

Enlist Help

If you have siblings or other family members who share your concern, consider talking with them first. Coming to a consensus with family members ahead of time can head off confusion in the future. And you may be able to identify the contributions each of you can best make. Maybe one of you is better suited for tackling the tough conversation while another has time to tour senior living communities with your parent.

Allow Time

Transitions are hard and your parent may need time to adjust to the changes. Don’t rush to find a solution, and be prepared to revisit the conversation several times before you reach a decision.

Be Prepared

Before you start the conversation, you can help the process along by doing some research into potential solutions. Look into nearby senior living communities or in-home care options. If you know people in similar situations, ask them what solutions have worked for them. Having a handful of ideas to share with your parent can make the necessary transition seem doable and it will give you and your parent a starting point as you look for the best way to address your parent’s situation.

We Can Help

Where You Live Matters is a resource for seniors and their families created by the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA). We provide unbiased, research-based guidance to help seniors and their families navigate the challenges of aging. Subscribe to our blog to learn more about how to have difficult conversations with your parents and other topics related to senior housing and services.