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Difficult Conversations with Our Aging Parents: Why We Avoid Them, How to Start Them and 7 Tips

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

When she saw the crumpled door and fender on her mother’s car, Shelley realized her mother had been in a few car accidents since her last visit several months earlier. But when she mentioned this, her mom said, “Mind your own business.” Shelley called her sister who, like her, lived four hours away from their mother. After weeks of back and forth, the sisters finally got their mom to agree to take the driving test to renew her license. Mom reported the test went “very well.”

But months later, when Shelley checked with the Department of Motor Vehicles, they told her that her mom’s license had been revoked. A letter had been sent to her months three months ago. Their mom, Shelly realized, had just ignored the letter and continued to drive around town with no license.

The sisters were shocked and upset. They confronted their mother several times, but she told them to “bug off.” They were at their wit’s end. The sisters went to visit their mom to take away her keys and make a plan on what to do with the car. They dreaded the visit and disagreed with each other on how to proceed. I can report they did get the keys but their mom was furious for months. The sisters’ approach made a difficult situation worse.

Do You Know If Your Parents Need Help?

Nearly all of us have critical issues, like giving up driving, that we avoid addressing with our aging parents. These include:

  • When our parents may need more help with day-to-day tasks like bathing.

  • When they may need more help with their finances, turning on their TV, and making phone calls.

  • When they may need to move to a place with a higher level of care.

  • When they are having health problems and it's likely a sudden medical crisis will occur.

  • When they seem unhappy, depressed or lonely and they may need medications.

Most grown children with aging parents in their 70s, 80s and 90s, avoid talking with them about these kinds of critical issues way too long. But here’s the thing. There are smart and dumb ways to go about intervening in our parents’ lives, and smart ways can lower the probability of creating fireworks. 

How to Get the Conversation Started

These conversations are hard to get going. It feels upside down-- like we are becoming the parents-- when we start to question our parent’s decisions no matter how worried we might be about their safety or wellbeing. After all, we have lived our whole lives with our parents being the authority, making key decisions. We don’t want to hurt their feelings and we can feel helpless if they don’t agree with our solutions. We want to preserve a good relationship.

© Kurhan -

And yet, now it is different. We have to step up and take more responsibility as our parents journey from independence to dependence.

Here are a few ways to start a difficult conversation.

  • “Can we talk about _________for a few minutes?”

  • “What would it be like for you to____________?”

  • “Let’s look at the pros and the cons of you_____.”

And here are some tips for managing the whole process that I have learned in my psychotherapy practice over the last 50 years and from my own family.

© Halfpoint -

7 Tips for Helping Your Aging Parent

  1. Most of us wait too long before starting the conversation. Act as soon as you can.

  2. Listen to your parent’s thoughts about an issue first and show them you get their side of the story.

  3. Be persistent. You may have to come back to the subject many times.

  4. Acknowledge their feelings. “I know this change is hard for you. It is a loss, and it is very sad.” Help them grieve.

  5. You will probably have to assert your authority especially if your parent is not safe or the safety of others is involved. “It is time. You need to…”

  6. Lose gracefully. Know that sometimes it won’t work, and your parents will refuse to do something you are confident would be better for them to accept. At times, we have to let aging parents make foolish, unwise decisions.

  7. Bringing in a third person, an expert like a doctor, clergy or social worker, often smooths out a rough situation and breaks through an impasse.

To summarize, difficult conversations are difficult and they usually take courage, love, and fortitude.

I would love to get some reactions and feedback from grown children of aging parents about this blog. And what are some of your questions and concerns that I might address in future blogs?

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