Talking to Your Parents: 6 Lines to Use

Last Updated Sep 17, 2010 11:25 AM EDT

Has your dad been neglecting his bills? Should your mother still be driving? Is the food in your parents' refrigerator safe for them to eat? These are tough conversations to have with aging parents, especially if those parents have Alzheimer's Disease (which afflicts one in eight people age 65 or older) or another form of cognitive impairment.

How do you talk to a parent when you're worried about their safety or their finances? Very gently and with your ears open, according to Dr. Gail Henson, a professor of communication at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. She teaches courses on aging in America and gerentological communications, and she offers these tips for grown children approaching difficult conversations with their parents.

Make your checklist: Prioritize the issues that are of immediate concern. Pick two, for instance, banking and food safety, or driving and falling risk. There might be other irritations that are embarrassing, like spots on their clothing, but those don't really pose a threat to the parent. So put those concerns aside for now.

Offer an observation, then ask a question. "Gosh, I see all these bills. Would you like me to help you open them up and put them in order?" Your observation is non-threatening and non-judgmental. Then you let the parent make the decision, which puts him or her in the position of problem-solver. "Oh, I see this...may I help you?" is always a good way to start, Henson says.

Be an active listener. Good openers for hard conversations include, "Help me understand this," and "Tell me how you do this." It enlists the parent's aid and validates his or her autonomy.

Make the parent the hero. "I know, Dad, that aging well is really important to you. I know you value peace of mind. It would be so great to have all these financial records in one place. Do you have this information down?"

"Let's do this together." Bring over supplies and do the cooking together or do the laundry together. It protects your parents' pride, and they'll have less anger if they're in control. It allows you to see how they're managing.

Be affirming. When a person has cognitive impairment, "relationships dissolve into friend or foe," Henson says. "Are you a threat or a loved person? The more affirming you can be, the more you'll be perceived as a friend." Reminisce about good times, compliment them on whatever you can find to compliment. Make the parent feel safe with you.

Any other suggestions for communicating with parents, especially those with cognitive impairment? Sign in to share them below.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Borya, CC 2.0
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