“You Can’t Do That Anymore”: How to Discuss Aging With Your Parent

I still remember the night I realized my mother was getting old.

We were driving back from a family gathering. She was behind the wheel, and my three-year-old twins were in the back seat. She drove straight through a red light, and I looked over at her, shocked. She didn’t seem to understand what she’d done.

That was when I knew things were about to change. Within a few weeks, my mother was no longer driving, and as the years passed, her battle with dementia and health problems increased until she needed to stay in a nursing home. While she lost a lot of her capabilities, and sometimes didn’t know who I was, she was still my mother, and our interactions remained meaningful until the end.

When a parent ages, life gets complicated, and sometimes it can be hard to know what to do.

In my journey, I learned a few key things worth passing on. While a parent’s aging comes with many problems, your job isn’t to solve all of them — because you can’t. It is your job to team up with your parent and work towards their good. In other words, your top priority should be communication.

Where to start?

Standard communication skills will help you work with your parent. As the two of you discuss their situation, it’s important that you

  • Listen
  • Communicate openly
  • Back off when necessary
  • Express empathy

When you listen well, you let your parent know that you’re not there to run their life. It can be challenging for them to lose some independence, and the last thing you want to do is take away the freedom they do have. Instead of saying what you’re thinking, (“Mom, you can’t drive anymore”) you can find ways to communicate openly without sounding demanding. It’s important that you express both your concern (“I’m worried about you”) and the facts (“You drove straight through a red light”) but in a way that keeps your parent connected.

If you parent isn’t ready to hear it, they may become hostile, snappish, or even accusatory. Instead of creating bad blood and making things harder for your next conversation, back off when an argument begins. Play things by ear, and try to keep your parent willing to discuss it at a later date. The more you let them make their own decisions, the less threatening these life changes will appear. Instead of demanding that they stop showering and risking a bathroom fall, try to look at walk in tubs reviews together. The right tub can protect them from the danger of a fall, and if they’re involved in the decision process, they can keep more of their autonomy.

Finally, it’s important that you express empathy with your parent. You can rephrase some of the things they’re telling you (a common technique of therapists) or mirror their facial expressions as they speak. Leave room in your conversations for their frustration, doubt, and grief, and lend sympathy. They know they can’t do the same things they used to, and your empathy allows them to acknowledge that for themselves.

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