Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Effective Communication with Aging Parents Takes Practice and Time

My father was notoriously stubborn. And my mother, who is eight years younger, wasn’t exactly a submissive woman herself. Both feared change immensely, particularly my mother. That meant when the effects of aging began taking a physical and mental toll, they weren’t as quick to adapt as I might have hoped.

My dad didn’t want to see the doctor. Or take his prescribed medications. Or exercise. My mother didn’t want anyone else to be charged with the care of her husband.

Having zero experience communicating on issues of importance with older adults, I came on far too strong and my attempts to offer some logical intervention were met with stiff resistance. I realized I would need to alter my communication methods, so I began reading and researching about how to deal with aging parents and other loved ones who may be too stubborn for their own good.

I didn’t get much of an opportunity to test this new approach with my father. A few months later he died suddenly after a heart attack led to cardiac arrest. It was shocking and heartbreaking, of course, though looking back through a lens of practical acceptance, there is a sense of relief that he passed before he could continue the rapid process of mental and physical deterioration that he was so obviously in the midst of.

Once the natural stages of grief had taken their course, it was time to get back to practical matters, specifically my mother. Remember when I said that she always had a difficult time accepting and adjusting to change? Well, oftentimes life gives us no choice but to adapt or die, and my mother bravely chose the former.

It’s been a decade now since my father died and I wouldn’t say my mother has ever gotten over the fact, but she has permitted herself to move on with a new life. She would never admit this, but after a long period of mourning and adjustment, there were several years there where she lived independently and thrived, relieved of the burdens and responsibilities of caring for her late husband.

But before long, it became apparent that the day was soon coming when some of the same bridges would need to be crossed with my mother that had been so treacherous navigating with my father. I had a firm resolve to communicate with my mother about these issues in a much more effective manner, and to that end I had continued studying the art and science of eldercare and seeking out the advice of experts.

I learned, in order to communicate my thoughts and concerns to my mother in the most effective manner possible I had to truly empathize with her and draw upon my capacity to listen – not just “hear” while wait my turn to say my piece, but truly listen to her words and feelings and see where she is coming from by placing myself in her shoes.

I also had to be acutely aware and understanding of how difficult it was for my mother to accept help or suggestions from me and my brothers. For her – like many older adults – that kind of acceptance comes with an unbearable admission of the cognitive and physical regressions that come naturally with age.

My mother understood those realities to an extent and was able to pay lip-service to them on occasion, but her willingness and ability to fully come to terms with that reality was somewhat compromised and made it more difficult for her to recognize the magnitude of the decisions that had to be made.

Even in the years immediately following my father’s death, when my mother was still firing on all cylinders there were certain things that she didn’t want to admit. For one, managing the family home all by herself was a difficult task, and one that seemed pretty unnecessary considering it was far too big for one 70-year-old woman. Another issue was the mountain of stuff that had accumulated over the years – much of it my father’s, the contents of which my mother had no idea. She was hesitant to get rid of anything.

But by putting up a united front over the course of a couple years, my husband and I – along with my two brothers and their wives – had an opportunity to practice our communication with mother, with the hope that the end result would be that she come to her own rational conclusions about the realities of aging and the necessity of certain courses of action.

It worked wonderfully, and my mother moved in with us and has led a rich and fulfilling life in our home for the past seven years, aging as gracefully and contentedly as anyone daughter could hope for. Communicating with our aging parents in an effective manner doesn’t exactly come naturally. But once we realize the importance of the stakes and begin taking a long-term approach, we can begin to communicating effectively with our older loved ones.

Sarah Jennings has been taking care of others her whole life. In 2005, she moved her mother into her family home. She uses her personal experience to share with others about caring for the elderly. She currently writes on behalf of Brookdale assisted living.

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