Aging Parents and Conflict Resolution:
Key Communication Skills

The key to resolving and avoiding conflict at this stage of life is an understanding of what your aging parents are experiencing. Understanding this new stage of life can help you improve communication and avoid power struggles. One aspect to successful communication is to understand what is going on for your elderly parent. We shake our heads at our parents' obsession with the past, their caution, and the glacial pace with which they make decisions and move through the world. They seem unreasonably stubborn or unwilling to face obvious facts, Part of the problem is that we tend to think about our elderly parents as more wrinkled, less capable versions of the people they used to be. As a society, we take it for granted that old age is a time of decline rather than development and personal growth.

Experts who study the psychology of the elderly paint a richer, more complicated picture of aging. It turns out that aging involves distinct developmental stages and that elderly people have pressing life tasks they need to accomplish if they're to end their lives with resolution and meaning. These developmental tasks that motivate an elderly person's verbal and non-verbal behavior are to maintain control over their lives, and to discover their legacy, or how they will be remembered.

Control looms large for our parents as they experience the deterioration of their physical health and mental acuity, as well as the loss of their homes and independence and the deaths of friends and life partners. Given these monumental losses, it's no wonder that elderly people tend to fight for control over the few areas of life they're still able to manage. Even as the elderly struggle to accept and come to terms with their losses and to hold on to what remains, older people are engaged in an effort to shape and understand their legacy -- that is, to comprehend what their life has meant and the memories that will live on after they die.

Because adult children tend to be in the dark about what their adult parents are going through, they often interpret their parents' wandering conversational style or stubborn behavior as a sign that they're failing or developing dementia. Because of such misunderstandings, it's common for adult children to become trapped in struggles over issues like housing and health care.

Consider These Real Life Examples:

Example 1: You're trying to talk to your widowed father about where he's going to live now that his health is failing. You're in a hurry to get the matter resolved, but your father keeps drifting off the subject to tell stories about how he found this house years ago when he and your mother were newlyweds.

What's Really Going On: Your father is consciously or unconsciously engaged in the life review process as part of understanding his legacy. As he contemplates leaving this house for good, he's looking back on all this house has meant to him since he first moved there with his young bride.

Example 2: Your mother has complained several times that her eyes are bothering her and that she's having trouble reading at night. Yet every time you suggest making an appointment with her eye doctor, she resists. When you go ahead and make an appointment, she cancels it at the last minute, insisting that her eyes are fine.

What's Really Going On: Over the last few years, your mother has had to give up playing tennis because of her arthritis, and two of her oldest friends, who she often used to travel with, have died. She may be resisting the eye exam in part because she doesn't want to know if her eyes are failing, as this could mean more restrictions on her lifestyle and loss of independence.

Example 3: Every time you visit your parents, all they seem to talk about is health problems - not even their own health problems, but those of friends, neighbors, even perfect strangers. Don't they have anything better to talk about?

What's Really Going On: When you consider that their failing bodies are robbing them of mobility, independence, and ultimately, life, it makes sense that many older people are fixated on health issues Illness is the battle ground of old age. It's where we make our last stand. Like all post-traumatic stress victims, the old are interested in trauma stories. They talk to work through the trauma.

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These battles and miscommunications not only damage relationships but distract our aging parents from the important legacy work they need to accomplish. Understanding what your parents are going through won't make all your frustrations disappear, but it can improve your communication and help you support your elderly parents as they navigate this challenging new stage of life.

Some Ways To Gather Information and Improve Communication Include:

  • Making Time: Your interactions with your elderly parents will be more satisfying and productive if you can carve out substantial time to spend with them, rather than dropping in for five minutes or touching base by phone between meetings at work. Of course, you probably don't have time to spend hours with your parents every day, but if you regularly make time for lunch, a cup of tea, or a weekend visit if you live far away, you'll be more likely to have the conversations that reveal underlying concerns and help legacy issues emerge.

  • Listening: Make sure to really listen to your parents. If they bring up something that seems unrelated to the matter at hand, it's always tempting to interrupt and steer them back on track. But if you pay attention, you may find that a seemingly irrelevant point indicates a concern you weren't aware of. Encourage your parents to reminisce, and pay careful attention to the story behind the story.

  • Asking Good Questions: If your parents are reflecting on an experience or sharing a memory, try to help them gain more understanding of the experience by asking open-ended questions. For example, if your mom remembers a trip with a beloved sister, ask, "what was your relationship with Aunt Susanna like?" Good questions will help facilitate your parents' life review process.

  • Considering Creative Options To Help Your Parents Shape Their Legacy: You can help your parents build a legacy through concrete, communal projects, like making photo albums, interviewing them for an oral history, or making a quilt or other hand crafted object together.

Understanding this new stage of life can help you improve communication and avoid power struggles. By understanding your elderly parents' experience, you'll be better equipped to communicate with and help them. You'll never regret the time you devote to understanding your parents' experience -- and all you've done to help them gain a clearer perspective on their lives.

In researching this article I relied on the following sources:

How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders

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