How to Have That Difficult Conversation

Although we’d like to think our parents will always be strong and capable, sometimes it becomes clear that mom and dad need help.

But talking about this and other issues with an elderly parent can be difficult. Even beginning a conversation can be tough.

Keanna Jones, director of Mental Health Services at CORRAL Riding Academy in Cary, spends a lot of time talking about relationships and building communication skills with her clients. Good preparation, reasonable goals, empathy and self-awareness are essential for success, she says.

“Take some time to think about what you want to say,” Jones said.  “What is it that we really want to get across? What is that we would really like to accomplish or solve with this conversation?”

It might be helpful to jot down the points you’d like to cover, but limit your topics, she cautions. You don’t want your parent to become overwhelmed.

Before initiating a conversation, seek out an objective observer who might be able to provide thoughtful input. Siblings should also be consulted before any conversation with mom or dad. Do some alliance building, she suggests.

When you are ready to begin, it’s important that you are not stressed. The same goes for the person to whom you are speaking. Ask for a time to talk, then make sure you are prepared and rested. Try to approach the conversation, not with dread, but with curiosity and empathy, says Jones.

“This is a really hard thing for them to go through,” she said. “Try to put yourself in their place, as well as getting your point across.

“A lot of what I teach is owning your own emotions when you’re talking to another, so you are being transparent. So it’s not ‘I don’t want you driving anymore,’ it’s ‘I’m really scared when you’re on the road, and I worry about you.’”

The elderly parent may dismiss your concerns, Jones says. You have to do your best to remain calm, not take anything personally, and focus on what needs to be said.

“It’s not fun, especially when you have to talk about ‘You’re falling down a lot, and I’m really worried about that. Do you want to live here? Or should we find someplace for you to live?’”

Work with your parents to reach a solution, instead of trying to dictate an outcome that may suit you. Reassure them that you want to support them, so they can remain as independent as possible.

And if things get emotional, be patient.

“We have to manage ourselves and recognize that our emotions are getting too high, and we’re becoming unproductive,” she said.

That’s when to ask for a break, or if you can continue the conversation at another time. Many difficult topics aren’t resolved with one conversation, Jones says. These small conversation lay the groundwork for big decisions.

“This is difficult stuff,” she said. “It’s layers upon layers of emotions, thinking and conflict; people hate conflict.”

Other resources: (search “Family Conversations”)

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