No matter how well two people get along, arguments are bound to surface. You may think that because you’re emotionally close to an older adult that arguments would be few and far between. But oddly enough, there may be an even greater opportunity for squabbles simply because you spend so much time together! Some of these disagreements will be minor while others are ongoing and may hint at bigger underlying issues between you. And if you are the primary caregiver for the older adult in question, [1. “Selected Caregiver Statistics,” Caregiver.org, December 31, 2012, https://www.caregiver.org/selected-caregiver-statistics] quarrels may surface more often than you’d like. Regardless, you want to limit the number and duration of arguments that do come up. Fortunately, there are techniques for “fighting fair” that can help smooth things over a little more quickly.
Acknowledge the Impact of the Past
You may not think of fighting as something that you learned, but the truth is, most of us picked up patterns of arguing at some point. As we grew up, we watched parents or other major role models navigate arguments, absorbing and internalizing the way they resolved conflicts. As we grow into adulthood, we often use these same learned methods to handle our own disputes. Sometimes, we may never have realized that these methods were flawed or that there were better ways to foster peaceful relationships.
Adjust Your Fighting Stance
To get along better with your aging loved one, you may need to adjust your “fighting stance.” Try the following moves before you come out swinging:
Focus on the present. What not to say: “You’ve always favored my little sister over me. Why can’t you see that I’m the only one here helping you while she gets to have her own life?”
The roles we play growing up never disappear entirely in adulthood, and this is never clearer than during a fight. So it’s no surprise that the past gets dredged up during arguments. Unfortunately, short of inventing a time machine, little can be done to solve problems that started years ago. So when you fight, keep your eyes on the now. For example, “Aunt Grace, I know my little sister visits more often than I do. But that’s because I’m taking care of your insurance and arranging your doctor’s appointments when we’re apart. I hope you can see that’s my way of showing I love you.”
Focus on the problem. What not to say: “How can you continue to drive when you keep having accidents? That’s so reckless and irresponsible. When are you going to come to terms with reality?”
If your loved one is having trouble giving up their driver’s license[2. “Dangerous Senior Drivers,” Caring, accessed December 28, 2015, https://www.caring.com/articles/dangerous-senior-drivers.] or other independent activities, questions like, “When will you come to terms with reality?” aren’t going to help. They’re only going to put the other person on the defensive. Instead, present the issue as a problem that needs solving: “Dad, I’m worried for your safety and the safety of others when you drive. We can’t put this off any longer; we need to think of alternative modes of transport. Can we talk about getting some outside help to take you to appointments and for errands?”
Don’t generalize. What not to say: “The house is always such a mess, it drives me crazy. You never clean anything up; how can you find your bills and medications in this place?”
Chances are, your loved one doesn’t always do things a certain way, and they probably don’t do it on purpose to make you crazy! Maybe they can handle putting away a few dishes but have trouble with other forms of housekeeping. Or they can remember which medications to take, but not at which time of day. Be specific when you’re fighting to avoid over-exaggerating. Try this tactic instead: “Mom, I’ve noticed that you have trouble with housecleaning that requires standing up, like sweeping or mopping. What do you say we look into finding someone to do that part for you?”
In Your Next Argument, Try Fighting Fair
No one enjoys arguing with someone that they love. But if you find this happening with an aging loved one, fighting fair may help you resolve the conflict. Now that you know the rules to a proper argument, try using them the next time you and your loved one have a disagreement. Not only may it end the fight faster, but you may find yourselves growing closer than ever!
If you’re unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.