Compassionately Navigating Communication with Your Aging Parent After a Role Reversal

My dad is the most socially and physically active person I know. In his mid-seventies, his social calendar is still jam-packed: between swimming, playing guitar, and hanging out on the golf course, his lifestyle puts my own to shame. He also has a pretty serious heart condition that requires a pacemaker and a slew of medication. Fatigue can hit him during the day, sometimes making him unable to drive.

role reversal aging parentMy dad is the most socially and physically active person I know. In his mid-seventies, his social calendar is still jam-packed: between swimming, playing guitar, and hanging out on the golf course, his lifestyle puts my own to shame. He also has a pretty serious heart condition that requires a pacemaker and a slew of medication. Fatigue can hit him during the day, sometimes making him unable to drive.
I try to be caring without being overbearing, but when he has unexpected dizzy spells, I can’t help but voice my concern on the spot. He assures me he’s fine, that it’s not a big deal, and usually asks me to, “Please, just let it go.” I’m still fine tuning how to find the balance between offering help and knowing when to leave something alone as I navigate my ever-changing role reversal with my aging dad.

Syncing Up with Your Loved One’s Needs

We want to give our parents the best support possible while respecting their boundaries and independence. So, it can be helpful to figure out whether your style of caregiving matches up with your loved one’s needs, and take some simple steps to get on the same wavelength more often.

1. Put Yourself in Their Shoes

It’s likely that you and your aging parents have very different needs and perspectives. As a caregiver, your main goal might be to keep your parent safe and healthy for as long as possible. Your parent, however, may place more value on enjoying themselves and simply doing what they want. Putting yourself in your parent’s shoes for a moment can help you step away from your own viewpoint, however well-intentioned it may seem, and understand how your parent may be feeling.

For example, it may seem very reasonable to discourage your aging loved one from driving at night to avoid potential accidents—you might even feel justified in bringing it up every day until they agree to stop doing it. But what if you were in their shoes?
Assuming your eyesight were still relatively good, wouldn’t you want to be able to drive after dark? Or, at the very least, you’d probably want to retain the right to make your own choice about it. When family members are able to empathize with their parent, they can start to approach the situation differently, and reach an agreeable compromise where everyone feels understood and respected.

2. Learn to Hear Your Loved One’s Needs

This one involves actively listening to what your loved one says and learning to interpret the needs they’re really seeking to meet. For example, your aging parent might complain that you nag them too much about their diet, but what they’re really saying is they’d like you to trust them, and be allowed to make their own choices.
Or, perhaps they want their other health commitments to be acknowledged, like exercising regularly, instead of the conversation always being focused on their eating habits. They may want to be able to eat what they want without being bothered about it, and feel they’ve earned the right to do that. And that’s reasonable and fair. While caregivers might feel inclined to focus on areas that still need work, it’s equally important to recognize your loved one’s efforts and accomplishments—this can help them to feel trusted and respected.
If you find yourself always focusing on a specific issue with your loved one, like eating healthier, losing weight, or quitting smoking, ask yourself what your underlying intention is. It’s likely that you simply want your loved one to feel healthy, live a long life, and remain independent. Instead of pointing out their bad habits, try to shift the focus to how you want them to feel, such as healthy, energetic, or alive. When you concentrate on the positive aspects, it gives your aging parent a chance to respond openly without feeling the need to get defensive or feel hurt.

3. Scale Back on Criticism

There are a few common old age stereotypes—like being forgetful—that can be a source of humor to younger people. For example, your aging parent may forget things more frequently, or disregard the expiration dates on canned items in the cupboard. It can be easy for families to poke fun at these idiosyncrasies, but even well-intentioned barbs risk causing hurt in older adults. As your parent gets older, it’s best to air on the side of caution: too often, well-meant jokes can be misinterpreted as criticism, and cause your parent to pull away from you.
Poking fun at their forgetfulness may seem lighthearted to you, but your parent might quickly grow tired of being reminded of their old age and deteriorating mind. Similarly, they probably don’t yearn to hear a list of things they’re doing wrong, like having a messy or unorganized house. Being mindful of areas of sensitivity can go a long way to preventing unnecessary and unintentional hurt.
Navigating the fine line between offering just enough help and too much is naturally challenging: aging parents don’t always want the style or level of support their adult children think they do. When we start to explore the viewpoint of our aging parents, it’s easier to see what they’re really looking for. It’s an ongoing process, and one that relies on personal self-exploration—being honest about your own underlying intentions is essential to understanding your loved one’s perspective more deeply.
Our parents don’t expect us to be perfect, they just want to know we’re there for them and respect their needs. Fine-tuning your caregiving style, and getting more in sync with your loved one, is something you can practice on a daily basis. Learning to listen to our parents’ needs can help us connect more authentically—and teach us about the aging process along the way.
If you’re unsure how to offer the best care for your aging loved one, Institute on Aging provides a range of services, programs, and online resources. Connect with us today to learn more.

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