Many adult children have experienced this paradox: At the very time they need to communicate with their aging parent about important issues in their life, the older person begins experiencing impediments that make communication difficult. Many times, it’s a medical problem—i.e., recovery from a stroke, cognitive impairment, diminished hearing or eyesight. Other times, it can be a psychological or emotion issue—such as depression, anxiety, fear of death—that makes them reluctant to confront important issues head-on.
The types of issues adult children may need to discuss with their older parents include: creating or updating a will or living trust, designating general durable power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney, creating a living will or advance directive, preparing HIPAA authorization forms, selling their home, and moving into assisted living.
Many of these issues are complicated and require conferring with legal or medical experts. In some instances, discussions become fraught with emotion as parents and their adult children grapple with issues that are literally matters of life and death.
Guidelines for Enhancing Communication
Several national and local agencies offer clear-cut guidelines and suggestions for enhancing communication with older adults when it comes to such issues. The Administration on Aging, for instance, stresses the importance of health literacy, cultural competency, and meeting the needs of persons with limited English proficiency in order to communicate with older adults effectively.
Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRCs), which provide information and assistance to individuals on the subject of long-term care, likewise stress the importance of health literacy. According to an ADRC report on health literacy, while the average adult in the U.S. reads on an 8th- or 9th-grade level, literacy levels among older adults may be lower. In such cases, the individual might have trouble comprehending language, processing quantitative information, following directions, and filling out forms.
The report suggests guidelines for ADRC staff to use in oral or verbal communication so that it corresponds to the individual’s reading level. One of the tools suggested is the Fry Graph, which calculates the number of sentences and syllables used per hundred words. Adult children can take a cue from the guidelines when speaking with their parents.
If your parent is having difficult comprehending complex financial or medical issues, try using simpler sentence structure and shorter words. Wait for confirmation that your parent understands what you are saying before continuing, and when possible use visual aids and written resources to make your point clearer.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses that reading ability is just one aspect of health literacy. Effective communication on healthcare issues can be thwarted for other reasons as well. In an Expert Panel Report from the CDC on health literacy, the consensus was that much of the difficulty in navigating the healthcare system comes from the complexity of the system itself. Experts quoted in the study pointed out that the typical adult with a high school education may not have the skills necessary to use the system effectively without help and guidance. Legal issues can be similarly complex.
If the issue you are addressing with your parent is so difficult that you yourself don’t understand it, be sure to call upon the appropriate experts who have experience in explaining complex matters to their patients or clientele. You don’t have to go it alone.
Having more effective communication with older parents on complex or even ordinary everyday issues often comes down to empathy and understanding. Seeing things from the other person’s perspective can help you communicate with your parent more effectively. Based on expert recommendations and opinions, we commend the following strategies:
- Be patient. According to an article in Psychology Today, this is especially important if age is slowing your parent down and cognitive functioning has diminished.
- Don’t talk down to the individual. Using simpler language and sentence structure (as recommended above) is fine if it makes a difficult issue easier to understand. But don’t insult your parent’s intelligence by talking in the same manner that you address a child.
- Provide options. No matter what their age, adults want to feel in control of their lives, according to the Psychology Today article. Even if you are trying to act in your parent’s best interests, providing options is better than making a unilateral decision. It also helps maintain the older adult’s sense of independence.
- Listen as well as talk. Communication is a two-way street. Don’t forget to take pauses in the conversation so that your parent can interject his or her opinion. Even though a loved one has aged, in many ways, he or she is the same person you knew growing up. Taking time to hear your parent’s point of view will help ensure decisions being made, on both matters large and small, are in keeping with the wishes of this very important person in your life—and that should be the ultimate gauge of whether your communication with your parent has been effective.