Adult children often struggle to find ways to communicate effectively with an aging parent. The reasons why range from how difficult the topics they may need to tackle are, to how hard it is for older adults to accept the losses that often occur with aging. While an adult child might be experiencing their peak performance at work and fulfillment at home, an elderly parent may be giving up driving and experiencing problems with their health. They may be trying to maintain control of independence as much as they can. The result can be friction and conflict.
7 Communication Tips for Talking with an Older Parent
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are trying to communicate effectively with an aging parent:
1. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about what they have already given up or lost. It might be a spouse, a career they loved, their ability to drive and even the family home. Being empathetic to their situation can help to diffuse the tension and resistance you may be feeling from them.
2. Validate that you understand what they are saying. You might not agree with their assessment of a situation, but it is important that they know you are listening and hearing what they say.
3. Avoid starting sentences with “you.” It often comes off sounding like an accusation and it can put people on the defensive even before they hear what you have to say. For example, if you are talking about the need for them to give up driving. Instead of saying “You aren’t safe driving” try saying “I’m worried about…” and share whatever it is that has you concerned about their safety behind the wheel.
4. Be kind and respectful. This can be difficult if you feel like their safety is in jeopardy. But they will likely become more defensive and resistant if they feel like you are telling them what to do and talking down to them. Our culture often makes older adults feel less valued. Don’t reinforce that stereotype with your parent. Smile while you are talking and be patient and sincere when listening to their responses.
5. Keep the lines of communication open. Call or visit your parent as often as possible. Even if it is only for a few minutes. It will allow you to continue to be a part of one another’s lives. When difficult situations or a crisis occurs, it will make it easier for you to work together on a solution.
6. If you have a tough topic to tackle such as the need to sell their home and move to an assisted living community, don’t ambush them. Avoid having multiple family members show up for an intervention-style conversation unless it is absolutely necessary. It is better to introduce difficult topics over a period of a few weeks. You might begin by mentioning a senior living community you noticed while you were on your way to the mall and seeing how they react. Then take small steps to work up to talking with them about a move.
7. Finally, tackle one tough topic at a time. Don’t wait until you have a long list of concerns and then hit them with all of them at once. If you overwhelm them with multiple difficult topics, they may resist hearing anything you have to say at all.
It is important to remember that even small differences of opinion can lead to permanent rifts among family members. Make sure you let your aging parent know that their best interests and safety are your uppermost concern.
This blog was originally published on December 16, 2014 and updated in 2023.