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Having that awkward conversation with aging parents

Discussions among relatives about a major transition can

Discussions among relatives about a major transition can be especially tricky when those talks are between adult children and aging parents, experts say. Credit: TNS Monkey Business Images / Dreamstime

Maybe it’s time for dad to stop driving because his vision is shot. You’re worried because both parents can’t keep up with household chores, so it’s time to hire professionals or plan a move.

Discussions among relatives about a major transition can be especially tricky when those talks are between adult children and aging parents. Emotions swirl around concern for parents’ welfare against seniors’ desire to be self-reliant in a comfortable space.

Senior planners suggest easing into those topics when broached by the adult children of seniors and to consider the parents’ perspectives, fears or concerns.

“We’re fighting for our independence,” said Gail Goeller, a Spokane author who wrote the book, “Coming of Age with Aging Parents: The Bungles, Battles and Blessings.”

During tough discussions between family members, it might help to have a neutral third party or friend of a parent present to help buffer and add perspective, Goeller suggests.

“It’s really how to guide them to that conclusion, if you can start with their feelings,” Goeller said. “There is sometimes a shame attached to getting older, especially as you’re aware that some of the capability you had is diminishing.”

“Go in kind of low-key and begin a conversation, but plan on having plenty of time to talk about it, so you can listen and not just direct. What I’ve noticed happens is that the shame goes deeper if it’s a real quick mention that you’ve got to do this.”

A soft approach and reassurance can go far, Goeller said while acknowledging that both parties might have different views.

“You can say, ‘Believe me, this is because I care about you and about you living as long as you can in good health,’ ” she said. “You can say, ‘We don’t have to decide today.’ ”

AARP offers other conversation approaches, including these five tips when seniors need to consider big changes:

  • Raise the issue indirectly: Give an example of someone who recently hired in-home help, or an article that you read about programs at a nearby senior center. The adult child could ask, “Is that something that you might be interested in learning more about?”
  • Share emotions: AARP offers an example of language that keeps both parties in mind, such as: “Dad, it’s hard for me to see you slowing down, and I know you’ve always prided yourself on being independent. I imagine it’s difficult for you to ask for help, but what are some things that we can do?”
  • Set the right tone: Once the topic has been brought up, listen to how your parents feel about their current needs, concerns, worries and hopes for the future. Don’t guess or make assumptions about your parents’ preferences. Ask open-ended questions that get them to express their perceptions.
  • Discuss concerns and avoid criticism: An example of a positive statement is, “I’m feeling concerned that you may fall coming down the stairs. I could put a 100-watt bulb at the bottom of the stairs and install a handrail.” Don’t say: “Going downstairs in your condition is ridiculous. You’re sure to fall.”
  • Avoid role reversal: Helping out doesn’t mean you are “parenting” your parents. The most productive interactions come when parents and adult children are equal in the relationship.

AARP has additional tips in an article, “Talking With Your Parents About Independent Living,” on its website,

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