Communicating with an Assertor About Their Personal Needs
Aging can be tough on assertors. They’re used to leading conversations, making decisions, and solving problems. Suddenly, they may not be in charge, other people might be making decisions for them, and they might feel as if they are the problem. Assertors like dealing with facts, benchmarks, and goals, and difficulties that may accompany old age can make them feel like they’re suddenly useless or purposeless. When you take the time to communicate well with an assertor, you can help them accept these changes that come with the aging process, and learn to enjoy their new stage in life.
Personal needs can be especially frustrating for people who are used to taking charge and arranging things for others. Assertors are used to being the help, not asking for it. When their can-do attitude collides with problems they can no longer solve, or if loved ones are prying into issues they want to remain in control of, they can grow angry and afraid. Communicating well with your assertor about personal issues can help you resolve those issues with them more quickly.
Discussing Personal Concerns with an Assertor
Personal concerns are very focused on the individual. One person’s challenges may be entirely distinct from another’s. However, most personal concerns revolving around aging are likely to fall into one of the following categories.
Assertors are often very independent, so discussing their living arrangements can be an emotionally difficult, high-conflict experience. They may not want to consider changes to their home, the addition of a caregiver, or a move. After all, they’ve spent a least half a century arranging their lives precisely how they like them. Unwanted change is uncomfortable, and increased dependence can seem demeaning. One useful technique is to discuss what happens if you make the change now, versus what happens if you wait until the assertor is in crisis.
After Frederick’s father broke his ankle, the orthopedic surgeon wanted him to move to a single-level home to minimize the chance of future falls. Frederick’s father was extremely resistant to the idea of moving. To start the conversation, Frederick compiled a list of if-then statements.
For instance, “If you stay here until you fall again, you will probably have to move to a skilled care nursing home and will lose that freedom of choice.” “If you move to a single-floor garden home now, then you will be able to stay there and be able to maintain your independence. If you move in with me, then you’ll have your own room and bathroom, but will have to share space with other members of the family.” By presenting the conversation in terms of if-then statements, Frederick was able to help his father focus on goals and benchmarks, looking at options and scenarios analytically.
Assertors are often the leader in relationships, and thrive when they get many opportunities to socialize. On the one hand, this is a positive trait. Aging assertors are often dating, involved in community groups, and very open about their opinions and feelings. However, you may worry when you see a recently widowed assertor pulling back from social connections, an assertor who’s lost mobility refusing to leave the house, or a healthy, energetic assertor making questionable relationship choices.
Randall knew his father needed to get out of the house after his mother died, but his dad kept insisting that events for local seniors were “boring” and “full of old people.” To get his father out of the house, Randall informed his dad that, for his health, he needed to leave the house at least three times a week. Doctor’s appointments counted, but he would need to pick events from a list to make up the difference.
The first few weeks were difficult, as his father grumbled and complained before each event. But Randall held firm in his position, however, and his father soon met agemates who shared his passion for politics and social change. Within a month, Randall’s role had moved from social director to chauffeur, and his father had taken charge of his own socialization once again as he became involved in a movement to increase access to city homeless shelters.
Assertors are used to seeing a problem and solving it on the spot. Their can-do attitude makes them an asset in any business or community group. It also makes it especially hard for them when they can no longer perform certain tasks or activities for themselves. You may find it difficult to persuade them that they need help.
When Mariana first spoke to her aunt about having someone come in and help with the housework, her aunt lashed out at her. “If you think I need help, why don’t you come over here and do it?” Mariana had her own career, home, and family to look after, and she knew that her aunt needed regular visits from a housekeeper, not occasional help from harried family members.
Mariana outlined her reasons for wanting to hire a housekeeper for her aunt and provided the profiles of several prospective employees. She explained that it would be best to make a decision soon, since these women wouldn’t have spaces in their schedules for long. When her aunt still refused to consider a housekeeper and insisted that Mariana should do it for her, Mariana reminded herself that they didn’t have to agree. The situation wasn’t immediately pressing, so she shelved the conversation and made plans to return to it at a later date. They didn’t have to reach an agreement the first time they had the conversation.
Assertors are used to charging ahead, focused on goals and facts rather than emotions. While this mindset helps them accomplish great things, it can become a liability when they start to suffer from an unhealthy mental or emotional state. It can be difficult for them to admit that they have emotions, not to mention that these emotions are affecting their ability to function well or relate to others. Assertors can tend to ignore their emotions, lashing out at others instead of dealing with the root causes of their unhappiness.
As Lin’s mother lost her mobility and had to drop some of her favorite activities, she became depressed. However, she decided that the problem wasn’t depression, but Lin’s incompetence as a caregiver. She responded by keeping up a constant stream of criticism, peppered liberally with curses and insults. Her mother’s depression and externalizing behaviors began to take a very real toll on Lin’s mental and emotional health.
When Lin had to talk to her mother about her abusive language, she was careful to use a lot of I statements. “I feel hurt when you curse at me when I bring you your medications. I would feel more loved if you said please and thank you.” By focusing the discussion on her own subjective feelings, Lin closed off one angle of attack. Her mother couldn’t try to argue away Lin’s feelings, because they weren’t open to argument.
While the conversation didn’t cause an instant change in her mother’s habits, it did lead to a gradual improvement of their relationship, as it forced her mother to realize that she needed to seek treatment for her depression and that the status quo wasn’t working.
Today’s seniors are healthier than their counterparts in generations past, and they’re also more active. Most retirees have a regular rotation of exercise classes, social groups, and church or volunteer activities. Many assertors thrive in this environment. They’re no longer using their leadership and organizational skills to advance in their career, but they’re using them to improve their health, the lives of their friends, and their communities. Because assertors get a ‘high’ off of these sorts of leadership activities, it can be difficult to convince them to dial back, even when it’s essential that they do. On the other hand, some assertors can feel humiliated by new physical limitations such as a cane or walker, and withdraw from the very activities that give them a sense of meaning and purpose. As a caregiver or loved one, you may want to help your assertor find the right balance of activity and rest for their current health status.
When Rhonda’s father was diagnosed with cancer, he was adamant that he was not going to let the disease control him. He served on the boards of several local organizations, and wanted to schedule his chemotherapy and appointments around his volunteer obligations. However, as the treatments progressed, his immune system suffered. His doctors were concerned that efforts to maintain his previous pace might leave him vulnerable to life-threatening secondary infections. Rhonda needed to persuade him to put his own health first, at least for a little while.
Rhonda realized that she’d have to have the conversation in a straightforward manner. “So, Dad,” she began, “Are these board memberships worth your life? Because the chemo can’t save you if you die of pneumonia first.” Her statement got his attention. She followed up with clear questions. How hard would he be to replace? Could he take a temporary leave? If he had to cut back to only one board, which would he choose? She managed to convince him of the seriousness of the situation, and he decided to call his various boards and ask to drop off them for now and come back once his cancer was in remission.
It’s important for assertors to stay connected with family and friends, but they can find new technologies frustrating. In their working lives, they could simply delegate projects if a new software program or device irritated them. Now, in retirement, they need to learn to use social media and smartphones to keep up with far-flung family, but the same tools that Millennials find indispensable can seem irritating to their elders. When new ways of communicating are combined with new schedules that upend familiar calling and connection routines, you may find that your assertor needs help remembering to reach out and let the family know how they’re doing and what they need.
When Jim’s daughter left for college, he knew he’d have to teach his mother how to reach her favorite grandchild. However, the generational communication gap was causing problems. His mother was used to using email for work, his daughter lived to text. His mother was not the best at texting, and his daughter checked her email maybe once a week, if she happened to think about it. However, she was a frequent Instagram user. If Grandma wanted to stay in the loop, she was going to have to learn to use IG.
Jim knew that if he tried to rush his mother through a tutorial, it would simply irritate her, and she’d brush it off. Instead, he blocked out a few hours and arranged for his daughter to be ready for Grandma’s Instagram debut in that time period. By planning carefully, Jim was able to show his mother how to use the app and his daughter was able to instantly like and comment on her grandmother’s posts. By creating an unrushed, carefully planned environment for learning, Jim was able to help his mother stay connected with their busy, geographically scattered family.
General Tips for Communicating with an Assertor
- Be factual and accurate, don’t exaggerate.
- Be straightforward and ask challenging questions, don’t tiptoe.
- Use simple language that educates them on their condition.
- Have structured conversations with tasks/goals for managing conditions and maintaining health.
- Use formulas. List behaviors and results.
- Have conversations in a timely fashion. Don’t rush.
- Stand your ground. Be strong and confident.
- Use non-debatable ‘I’ messages rather than judgmental ‘You’ messages.
- Remember that you don’t have to agree.
- Keep them active in the decision-making. Give them guides that they can follow and manage on their own.
Better Communication Helps Assertors Meet Their Personal Needs
Your assertor is unlikely to ask for help in dealing with their personal needs, but that doesn’t mean that you can just pretend there’s no problem. Personal needs affect health, finances, and overall quality of life. When you communicate in a way that your assertor can understand and respond to, you can help find ways to meet these needs and maintain quality of life as your loved one ages.