There are many topics that elders truly enjoy. Older gentleman like to talk about their accomplishments; older women may like to talk about relationships and time they spent with friends and family. None of them want to talk about age-related problems like progressive dementia, falls, weakness and the like. Sometimes having a conversation about these things becomes important but it’s hard to start.
Here’s a couple of tips to get the ball rolling:
Get super clear on why.
You, as the adult child, need to know why you’re having this discussion and what you’re hoping for. It’s also helpful to have a clear idea of what your siblings are seeing and their perspectives. Having a clear purpose in place will help you muster the courage to step out.
Understand the territory.
Some families are very open in discussing issues and some tend to talk about things more indirectly. As people age, these patterns generally stay about the same. If during your growing up years you could not address issues directly, anticipate that this will be a longer process. Of course, the process will need to get moved along more quickly if your loved ones are endangering their health or safety. This is the direction that I advise for people that have good decision-making abilities and are not posing a physical risk to themselves and others. If they are making choices that are putting themselves and others at risk, this may not be effective but always the best place to start.
Make sure the right person is having the right conversation.
Understanding family dynamics is important here. There are some family members that are able to persuade parents more than others. Make sure to use that long-standing relationship. Sometimes it’s the youngest daughter, not the oldest son who can move her dad. It may have been a source of annoyance for the other siblings up until now; now it’s time for them to put it to use!
Set the right tone.
Before you start into the conversation, reflect on your relationship with this person over the years. It’s actually helpful to bring up warm memories and feelings, and then bring back the question of why you’re having this conversation. Balancing your care for the individual and the importance of change, can set a good tone internally.
The more difficult the conversation is, the more important it is to have that conversation face-to-face. A good deal of the communication that we do is by body language. If you are approaching the sensitive issue with compassion or with a dominating desire to win, your body language will show it. Make sure your body language reflects what you are trying to convey: care, concern and reasonability.
Keep it positive and supportive.
The emotional tone of the conversation is just as important as the content. Keeping your tone supportive and not getting into power struggles is always the best way forward.
Helping them see the future.
If you are trying to get your loved one to accept help around the house, sometimes they just need to see how it would work. If you’re trying to introduce caregivers into the home, and your loved one’s complaint is “I don’t want to have strangers in my house” most agencies will allow for a “get to know you visit.” That has the added benefit of helping them see what life could possibly be like on the other side of the transition.
Take a tentative first step.
Try these ideas to get the conversation started:
- Ask open ended questions.
“How has your health been recently?”
“Mom said that you have been forgetting your medication, do you know why that is?”
The indirect approach.
“I heard the story about a gentleman who wandered out of his house and was found with hypothermia because he couldn’t find his way home.”
“I heard that Jane down the street has help coming in every day; she’s looking really well”
They may not take the bait the first time, so keep fishing, gently.
- Finding your opening.
If your parents or loved one is willing to talk about the problems of others, you may be able to take the conversation bit further. It’s important to start the conversation when things are relaxed and your loved one is at ease. A follow-up question may sound something like:
“Do you think having someone come and help you maybe something in your future?”
If they steer the conversation abruptly away, that is an answer too.
- Following the queues.
Using conversational tools like reflexive listening can be helpful in conversations like this. It helps people feel listen to and supported.
“I hear you’re really upset about that, what do you think?”
“I hear you saying X, and that is true, but have you thought about…”
“I hear you’re worried about X, what do you think your options are?”
During these conversations, often times you’ll see why people at this age feel stuck behind obstacles that sometimes are very easy to overcome but sometime are substantial and take serious problem-solving.
Just as important as having the conversation is being able to leave the conversation. It is rare that people make important decisions abruptly. Be prepared continue the conversation at any time. If your parents bring it up, be prepared to follow-up with questions to see where they are in the process.