Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Handling Tough Conversations with a Senior Parent or Loved One


So, you have figured out that mom should not be driving anymore or all the siblings agree that dad needs in-home nursing care. Great - the decision is half the battle. But, how do you talk to someone about it? Maybe it is a sibling you have to talk to – to get more help with taking care of your parents. Whatever the tough conversation, it sometimes helps to be prepared and to follow some basic guidelines for the best chance of avoiding conflict and maintaining good relationships.

Hard conversations are those where you think the other person may not be thrilled to hear what you have to say. They take some amount of courage because you cannot be sure of the reaction and you are guessing that the reaction may involve anger, tears or some other negative emotion.

One of the main reasons for the negative emotions is that we have tendencies to get defensive, blame others, or say things in ways that cause the other person to misunderstand us. One way to reduce the blame and defensiveness is to use “I” statements. In this way, you are “owning” what you have to say. For instance, rather than saying “you never help me with mom” you can say “I would like more help with mom.” This is a very different statement and is hard to argue with. I statements are what you see, what you think, what you feel and what you want. No one can argue with these and few people will get overly defensive about them.

Format of Conversation

“I see………..
“I think……….
“I feel……….
“I want…………

You fill in the blanks. Let’s say your 91-year old dad dented the car again and you are pretty sure he is not capable of driving safely and you are concerned.

How to Bring Up the Hard Topic:

“Dad, I see that you have dented the car – that is the second time in one month. I think you are having trouble driving safely and I feel very concerned and worried about your safety. I want you to make a doctor’s appointment with me so we can get his opinion on whether you should be driving.”

Now, dad will not be happy with this because he may not realize he has a problem, he may not want to face the coming lack of independence that will happen if he can no longer drive, etc. But, by owning all your statements and using only your observations, thoughts, feelings, and requests – you are avoiding some of the natural defensiveness that would come if you had said “dad, you can’t drive anymore – you are dangerous to others and if you don’t stop driving, I’m calling someone….”

Your “ask” for what you want in the “I want” part of this should be rather specific. You should avoid saying to a teenager for example: “I want you to respect me” and say something more like “when I talk to you, I would like it if you would look at me, not roll your eyes, and respond in a normal civil tone.”

So, here is a downloadable worksheet for any touchy conversation to get your thoughts down and below are the steps you can take:

  1. Download and fill in the hard conversation form. Watch for anything that technically fits the formula but is really a blaming statement or an assumption or a threat. In our example, you could say “I see the car is dented again and I think you are a lousy driver. The “lousy driver” thing is really saying “You are a lousy driver.” It is a subtle difference, but be aware of how you phrase things.
  2. Before you use the “I see” formula above, you may be wise to ask your dad, for example, “How do you think things are going with driving?” Sometimes, asking someone what he thinks first is a good way to prepare the person for what you are about to say and to get a feel for how much you are on the same page with him. Expect some amount of denial for some things as it is very difficult to face declining health or independence. These are serious losses and few people face these losses casually.
  3. Use your formula and then be quiet. Let him or her respond. Listen for the feelings and try to just talk about their perceptions for a while. For example, you could respond with just saying things like “yes, it would be hard not to drive” or “you seem worried about how you will get around if you can’t drive.” These statements help the person talk out their fears, worries, and anxiety about the issue you have brought up and help you to understand what they are going through.
  4. Many of these tough conversations with seniors are likely to involve difficult life transitions that reduce their freedom and independence. So, if there is agreement to go to the doctor in our example, you could then make sure that the person has control over as much as possible. For instance: “which doctor do you want to see?” “When do you want to make the appointment?” While these things seem insignificant, sometimes any amount of control can help when a person is facing a loss of control over the things that were once in his or her control.

*If you are having this conversation with a loved one and other family members, one person should do most of the talking so that the person does not feel overwhelmed or “ganged up” on. And all the members should use “I” statements.

You Can Successfully Have the Tough Conversations

No conversation tool or formula is guaranteed to make a perfect and smooth conversation, but using the structure outlined above can help organize your thoughts and prepare you. The most important thing to keep in mind is that denial is common and there are often strong emotions to deal with like sadness, grieving, fear, or anger. Treating the subject with tact, respect, patience, and understanding during these difficult life events is primary.  Remembering the love and respect you have for one another is key.

Download the Tough Conversation Worksheet



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