Communication tips for caregivers of elderly parents

Parents are used to taking care of their children. So, naturally, when the roles are reversed, there comes an adjustment. Clear communication helps make that adjustment as smooth as possible. Among many other skills, family caregivers need to be able to talk in a way that makes their elderly parents feel respected, supported and understood.

This may have its challenges. For example, a parent may have a hearing issue, get easily confused or have trouble responding quickly. And caregivers may have to address sensitive topics, like health, safety and independence, as well as money and driving.

Read on for tips to get the conversation started — and keep it going — in a way that works for caregivers and their parents.

1. Follow some general guidelines

To help conversations go more smoothly, try sticking to these rules as much as possible, no matter what you’re talking about.

  • Be patient. No one likes to be rushed into making decisions or answering a question, especially if they have memory issues.1
  • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements.2 Saying “You have to” or “You make me angry” may put parents on the defensive. Try to say, “I am concerned about” or “I feel angry.”
  • Stay calm. Nothing shuts people down faster than a heated discussion. Walk away if you find yourself getting angry or argumentative .3
  • Let them chime in. Give your parents a chance to voice their opinion and share how they’re feeling throughout the conversation.2

2. Start talking before there’s a crisis

The earlier you start talking with elderly parents about their caregiving wishes, the better. That way, you’re more prepared to make sure their wishes are respected. “If you have even the slightest nudge that your parents need care, don’t ignore it,” says Sue Ryan, a family caregiver, caregiving coach, speaker and educator based in Naples, Florida.

Whenever possible, have the conversation before there’s a diagnosis, so that there’s more time to make arrangements. To kick off the overall caregiving conversation, start by reminding your parents that your concern comes from a place of love, Ryan suggests. Say something like, “I love you very much. For years, you’ve cared for me. Now it’s my turn. I'm here to support you.”

3. Emphasize that you’re their advocate

When parents are care recipients, a common fear is that they will lose control of decisions that affect their lives, notes Kimberly Whiter, Ed.D., CEO of Elder Care Solutions, a caregiving education company based in Roanoke, Virginia.

To help ease this fear, let your parents know that you want to get as much information as possible about their wishes now, adds Whiter. That way, you can honor their wishes if they’re ever unable to speak for themselves.

It’s helpful to frame the discussion using your “I” statements. Whiter recommends saying, “At some point, I may have to make a decision for you. My number one goal is to ensure it’s what you would have wanted and that it maintains your dignity and boundaries. That’s the information I’m trying to gather right now.” If you’re struggling to get the right information from your parents, ask to go with them to their next doctor appointment. As a group, you can discuss details on their overall health care goals and advance care planning.

4. Look for conversation openings

If parents don’t want to have bigger-picture discussions, look for openings in daily conversations, recommends Whiter. For example, a parent may mention going to their next doctor appointment. That’s a chance to learn more about their health. Follow up by saying, “How are things going? What did you talk about with the doctor?”

If you’re struggling to get the right information from your parents, ask to go with them to their next doctor appointment. As a group, you can discuss details on their overall health care goals and advance care planning.

Casual conversations can also be a way to check a hunch that something may not be right, adds Ryan. For example, if you suspect a parent’s world may be getting smaller, ask if they’re still engaging in their weekly activities, like lunch outings or ballroom dancing classes. If you make it clear you’re asking from a place of love and support, your parent may be more willing to open up, explains Ryan.

5. Share relatable stories

Another way to bring up sensitive topics is by sharing stories about yourself or other people you know. “There are these doors that you can walk through,” Whiter says. “When you see that they open up, that makes it a little bit easier to start a conversation.”

For example, maybe you tell your parents you’ve simplified paying your bills by setting up automatic payments online. Then ask if they’re doing something similar, notes Ryan. If they aren’t, offer to show them what you’re doing and ask if they’d like help setting up online payments.

Suggest that parents organize their financial accounts and passwords by making a list, advises Ryan. Offer to help them create and maintain their lists. Or at least ask that they show you where they keep them, in case you need to step in. This topic may be a natural way to ask your parents if they’ve considered choosing a financial power of attorney (POA).

Sharing stories about friends or neighbors is another way to introduce delicate topics, explains Whiter. She recommends following up a story by asking, “If you are ever in that position, what would you want me to do?”

6. Keep trying

No matter how diplomatic you are, realize that a parent may not want to talk about personal topics, like their health or finances. They may pride themselves on their independence and get defensive when you ask. If that’s the case, continue to look for “those moments when you can try again,” Whiter says. A good opening statement, Ryan suggests, is “Help me understand.”

Chances are, your parents may also be worried about the same issues you are. As long as you keep reassuring them that your desire to help is coming from a good place, these conversations will eventually get easier.

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