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Tips for Communicating with Aging Parents


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July 13, 2012

By Dr. Amy D'Aprix, expert in aging, retirement and caregiving

I recently spoke with Marie, who helps care for her mother, Ellen. Marie was embarrassed when a friend of the family shared that she, too, was concerned about Ellen's driving. Apparently she had witnessed Ellen having some difficulty parking on the street. Marie had been worried about her mother's driving for a while, but every time she had tried to bring it up with her, the conversation ended with an argument. Marie knew it was a conversation that still needed to be had, but didn't have the energy to hear her Mom say that she thought she was treating her like a child. Unfortunately, that was what Ellen accused Marie of whenever she brought up something she was worried about. Marie wondered if maybe her mother had a point.

Our Parents Are Always Our Parents

Logically, we know our adult parents are not our children. But when communicating with them about sensitive issues, it is easy to slip into sounding "parental" because of the emotions we may be experiencing. Often we are fearful for our parents' safety or are worried about future issues that might arise. For this reason, it's important to take a deep breath before having a conversation about a sensitive topic and recognize the feelings that you have about the issue.

Ask yourself, are you scared? Feeling overwhelmed? Angry? Just recognizing your feelings may help you feel calmer before talking with your parent. If appropriate, you may want to share with them how you are feeling. You could say something like, "You know Mom, I want to help you stay as independent as possible and I know that driving is a big part of that for you. I'm also a little concerned because of some things I have noticed. If you're ok with it, I'd like to talk with you about my concerns and see what we can come up with together."

What to Do When You Disagree

You may have to remind yourself that your goal isn't to "get your way"; it is to come up with the best solution possible and for everyone to feel respected and heard. One thing we may need to remind ourselves about is the fact that our parents have the right to make decisions we may not agree with. If they have dementia, we will need to make sure they are safe. However, if they do not have dementia, then, like any adult, they have the right to make choices we don't agree with.

A Productive Approach to Conversations

So how can we as caregivers approach serious conversations in order to make them less stressful and more productive?

  1. Get in Touch with Your Emotions
    • Before sitting down with your parent, try to recognize some of your feelings. Are you scared? Overwhelmed? Angry?
    • Have a friend play the part of your mom or dad in a role-playing exercise. You can even admit to your parent that these feelings are making it hard to talk to them.
  2. Get Perspective
    • Consider a time when you were spoken to as if you were a child. What did it feel like?
    • Imagine you are the older parent and your adult children are speaking to you like you are thinking about talking to your parents. How would that feel?
  3. Be calm
    • Take a deep breath before broaching the subject. Work on staying patient.
    • Frame your thoughts. Focus on being sensitive and respectful.
  4. Communicate openly and respectfully
    • Speak clearly and honestly.
    • Begin with a sentence that shows your parent that you are not attacking him or her, such as: "I really want to help you stay independent and safe."

For additional conversation starters and more tips about better communicating with your older parent, learn about the 40-70 Rule®.

Read more articles by Dr. Amy on her blog, Ask Dr. Amy.

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. September 10, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Posted by Alda Ultra

    Hi, My mother who is now 94 yrs old is a victim of senior fraud. she has been receiving a lot of mails asking for donation. We (her children) are aware of these fraud activity but our mother has been brainwashed and not listening to us. she has been communicating sending cash to several organizations with PO Box return address. After the first time she donated something, she has been getting numerous letters from several different organization. and we explained it to her that they got your information from the first sender selling her information to them because you fall for it. but she said they knew her! she constantly argue with us and we are so frustrated. Can you please send her some articles that you have regarding Seniors victim of fraud. she needs it in paper as she has no access to computers. I will provide her address once I get a response from you. Thank you for your help!


  2. November 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Posted by Denny Jackson

    My Brother and I have a "sibling" older sister that seems to keep "health" and "quality of life" issues out of view from us. At present, she has set rules as to when we can visit mother, what we can do during those visits, etc. etc. My brother and I are increasing becoming frustrated with her "gatekeeper" approach and access to out mother. Would like to have your thoughts. Our mother mental faculties are pretty good with some challenges with memory and "repeat" conversations and stories.


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