The prospect of talking with your parents about senior living may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. With effective, empowering communication strategies, these conversations can actually be a relationship-affirming experience, says David Solie, MS, PA, an author, educator, healthcare provider, and thought leader on the developmental psychology of the second half of life.
Here, Solie shares guidelines for adult children on communicating with their aging parents in a thoughtful, loving manner.
First, adult children need to understand what makes conversations about senior living and other decisions related to aging so challenging. That starts by putting ourselves in the shoes of seniors to learn where they’re coming from.
“Older adults are navigating two powerful psychological developmental tasks: the need for control and the need to discover their life’s legacy,” explains Solie.
At a time when many seniors feel their control has been compromised or lost—often due to the physical effects of aging—the idea of moving to a senior living community poses yet another threat to their struggle to maintain control.
That’s why families must be especially careful not to run roughshod over their loved ones at this stage, says Solie: “Stepping in and trying to take away more control by forcing the issue will only make the situation worse.”
A Step-by-Step Approach
Instead, Solie suggests families reframe tough decisions in terms of their effect on seniors’ long-term control. He offers the following strategies for clear communication:
- Acknowledge your parents’ need for control. Solie recommends starting the senior living conversation by letting your parents know you understand control is critical to their well-being, and you fully support their need to hold the reins. They need to know you’re in their corner.
What to say: “Mom and Dad, I know you’re both proud of your independence and have always made your own decisions. I want to do everything possible to support that.”
2. Express how a specific area of their life is drifting out of control. At this point, Solie suggests you describe the behavior or circumstances that present a danger to your parents’ continued independence. Don’t be afraid to show your love and concern for them.
What to say: “I know this has been your home for a long time, but changes in your health are starting to complicate your ability to live here independently. I’m worried that things will get further out of control.”
3. Explain how your parents can regain control. Here, your goal is to frame the choice as a “control preservation strategy,” says Solie. Let your parents know you’re committed to helping them reestablish control.
What to say: “You both have a chance to bring this situation under better control. Let’s talk about some options for your living situation and how these options can protect your long-term independence.”
Of course, senior living decisions won’t be made in one quick conversation. But, Solie says, you can continually use these strategies to communicate in a way that resonates with your loved ones’ needs.
“As the conversation progresses with questions and concerns about what has to change, this reframing provides a way to bring the focus of the dialogue back to the most pressing issue: preserving control as long as possible.”
The Context of Aging
Context is everything in communication—and in communication with seniors, the context is control.
“For older adults, loss dominates all aspects of the context of aging—loss of health, family members, friends, status, driving, and home weigh heavy on their daily lives,” says Solie. “Helping them identify and preserve choices amid these staggering losses sends an affirming signal that you are ‘control-friendly’ and a trusted advocate for their well-being.”
CHIME IN: What are your best strategies for relationship-affirming, empowering communication with aging parents?