Talking to Our Parents

Who wouldn’t want to have the perfect home life where everyone gets along, everyone exchanges pleasantries, cherubs fly about the house and love ekes from every pore in our bodies?  But it doesn’t happen that way, does it?  We are the generation that is now lovingly referred to as “the Sandwich Generation”.  We are tasked with taking care of our kids and our parents (the bread), filled with holding down a full-time job, maintaining a home, and attending to a marriage.  Of course, the pandemic has added to our stress, and has become the impetus for the new “Screaming Women” groups popping up around the country.  Screaming groups are a great way to vent but venting at our loved ones only escalates situations into battles and at the end of the day, everyone feels badly. We think to ourselves, “can’t you just follow a simple directive?” But that directive is perceived as an order. Orders come from on high and put the offender above the receiver, making one person feel “less than”.

When screaming matches ensue, it is no one's fault. There is plenty of stress to go around and with an aging parent full of anxiety and uncertainty of their aging process, it often seems easier to give a directive than to become a tactician to get things done. After exhausting all of the techniques in your communications toolbox, (cajoling, pleading, silent treatment…) and NONE of them have worked, we consider other escape from the problem. Perhaps you consider quitting your job, yelling at your husband, silencing the kids, and ordering your senior parent into a full-time assisted care facility, assuming you have the money available to do so. Before you do that, however, consider the following steps to better communications to improve your situation and to provide better insight into the needs of everyone involved, especially your aging parent.

1)  Parents deserve dignity and respect. We all do. They raised us and continue to believe they are in charge, and they want control over their lives and sometimes ours. It is hard for us to be parented when we have had a job, a family, and done things on our own for years, but parenting our parents only takes away their dignity, it doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, it escalates it. Employing your sense of empathy to show dignity and respect to your elder parents can radically deescalate your situation.

2) Parents respond better to gratitude (we all do) than directives. Everyone wants to be appreciated. So, integrating gratitude into our communications ensures that we both feel appreciated. After all, we get back what we give out. Find little things that you can be thankful for. For example, “Thank you so much for taking your plate to the kitchen. It really helps me get out of the kitchen faster at night.” Or, “it was so considerate of you to bring in the newspaper. THANK YOU! “ One of my favorite thank you’s is, “Just think of yourself as wonderful….I do!”

3) Parents want to be admired. Praise helps both parties because everyone likes to be acknowledged, no one wants condemnation. When we give it, we receive love back in spades. A simple, “Wow, I didn’t realize you had that experience!  Well done!  I’ll remember that when I need a plumber. Would you want to do that for me?”  “AWESOME!”

4) Parents want to be helpful and understanding. Directives or criticism that begin with the word, “You” can escalate conversations into arguments because they elevate you above the recipient and create an environment of putting words and thoughts into other people’s heads, which may not be true. When you say, “You need to...” you become the commander and they, subordinate. Parents do not want to subordinate themselves to their children, but they often realize they must relinquish some level of control to continue living independently. Help them do this gracefully and with dignity by expressing how you feel, which starts by simply using the word “I”. “When I see you lose your balance it scares me, and I get concerned that you may get hurt.” “I want to help you, but I also need help understanding exactly how I should prepare your meals.” By simply taking ownership of your own feelings and expressing any stressors you experience in caring for your parent, you can overcome many of the hard feelings associated with the role reversal happening in you and your parent’s lives.

5) Parents want equality. Relationships remain good when both parties are on equal footing: same height, not one above the other. This tip should be followed both literally and metaphorically.

6) Parents fear the uncertainty of aging. The senior population today are often uncomfortable with sharing their wants and needs because they often don't know them. Try not to become frustrated when you fail to recognize or identify their needs. They powered through challenges in life, denying self. They did jobs because they were there to do, not because they chose to do them.  They needed money to pay bills, send you to college, and maintain their household.  So, they don't understand when children/others have issues with difficult circumstances. It is easy to become frustrated with our parents because they complain, whine, and often seem combative. We try to figure out what they want, but even they don’t know.  What they do know is that they want your respect and love. When we holler at them, they feel disrespected and either retreat into silence or fight angry words with more angry words.

7) Parents may deny their limitation. When working with defiant parents, it is easier to coax good behavior down the road than to demand or condemn bad. So, consider the person’s end-goal and incorporate it into the conversation. If their goal is to get back home, to be with their friends more, or to play golf, integrate that into your request with something like, “I want the same thing you want: for you to be able to play golf again. Taking a daily lap around the block will help get you there faster. Shall we go now?”  Accompanying them on their journey validates them and reassures your desire to care for them. If they resist, try something like, “I don’t know how you feel right now. What I do know is that sometimes I find that pushing through my resistance to do something, makes me feel better when I accomplish it.” Remember to start small and build on the request. For example, “That felt good!  You really did well!  Should we do another lap?” If they resist, respect the fact that they may not have the strength to go farther today. Ask how they feel. Are they comfortable? Show concern for their well-being and help them learn to respect their own limitations.

8) Parents want to be loved. Remember to reinforce your love for them: “I only want what is best for you. It scares me when you don't do this because I worry you won’t make your goal. I love you too much not to try to help you get there.”

9) Parents need encouragement. Be the example you want to see. If you need for your parent to drink more water, say with frequency, “I’m having some water. Can I give you some? I can add lemon or orange flavor if you would like it better.” Giving choices sometimes makes the parent perform better because they know that their feelings were considered. Saying, “Drink more water, you know you need to,” is an order. Refer to tip #2.

10) Parents want a voice. Remember, conversations that occur at eye level, at arms-length, where both parties feel heard are more productive. Always listen for concerns before responding in love. The extra time you take today to communicate better will serve to establish a comforting, loving environment where everyone thrives.