There’s a certain dynamic with just about all parent-child relationships. After all, your parents raised you. They probably taught you everything from tying your shoes to riding a bike and driving a car. Most likely, they paid for the things you needed and at least some of the things you wanted. You turned to them for advice and support, at least once you got through your teenage years.
Yet, for a lot of people, a time comes when that dynamic begins to shift. You may start to have concerns about your older parents. You suspect they might now be the ones who need your help, advice or support. And your parents may not welcome that change. They might still see you as a child, want to protect you or worry that they will lose their independence.
If you need to discuss any changing needs, be sure to honor and respect your parents. It’s important that you try to understand their perspective—keep an open mind. And make sure the lines of communication stay open. You’ve spent a lifetime relating to each other in a certain way. Shifting that dynamic won’t happen overnight.
We talked to Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and doctor of behavioral health with Banner Health, about some areas where you might need to have difficult, but crucial, conversations with your aging parents.
“Whatever your concern, it’s important to talk about it before it happens. Ask your parent what they would like and how you can help,” Dr. Fox said. “You want to collaborate, not dictate. No parent ever likes to be told what to do by their child. Acknowledge that and show them that you are coming from a supportive place. When people feel like they are making a choice, not being told what to do, they are more likely to do it. That’s true for everyone, including your elder parents.”
Here are some difficult topics you may need to discuss with your aging parents.
1. Vision or hearing problems
If your parent or family member has trouble seeing or hearing, it’s not just an inconvenience. It’s a health issue. When you don’t see well, you’re more likely to trip and fall. Activities like driving are unsafe. Studies have found that untreated hearing loss is linked with dementia, and worse hearing increases dementia risk.
You may need to have conversations with aging parents about sensory impairments. You can gently suggest scheduling regular check-ups. Emphasize how important it is to catch any problems early. Some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of wearing hearing aids. If you think your parent might need them, you can talk about how small and discreet many of today’s models are.
2. Memory challenges
When you start to notice signs of memory problems in a parent, it can be scary, because you may wonder if you’re seeing early signs of dementia. And when you bring this topic up with a parent, they might be afraid they will lose their independence.
You can share what you’ve observed with your parent and ask them if they’ve noticed any trouble with things like paying bills, remembering appointments or getting lost. Remind them that there are treatment options for dementia that work best when you start them early. Be sure they have their annual exams since cognitive assessments are part of the Medicare annual wellness visit. If they aren’t due for that appointment for a while, and you have concerns, suggest that they visit their doctor.
3. Medication management
It’s easy for people of any age to forget to take their medication or to take a double dose accidentally. It can be even more challenging for older adults since they’re more likely to need multiple medications for various medical conditions. But not taking medication as directed can be harmful. You risk dangerous effects from double doses or ineffective treatment from missed doses. Medication mismanagement could lead to a physical or mental health crisis.
Share your concerns with your parent or have a health care professional speak with them. Fortunately, most people can overcome this problem by putting a system in place. Simple weekly pill organizers work for many people. And more advanced systems can hold 28 days’ worth of pills, lock to prevent double doses, dispense medication at the appropriate time and use alarms or apps to notify your parent when it’s time to take medication. You can help fill out the organizers every week or month or arrange for help if you don’t live nearby.
4. Drinking alcohol or using substances
Alcohol use can be a concern for older people. That’s because some people feel the effects of alcohol more strongly as they get older. And older people are more likely to take medication that could interact with alcohol. You may also notice that your parent is drinking more than they should be, or you may be worried about a substance use disorder.
You’ll want to bring up your concerns about alcohol use with compassion and sensitivity, since otherwise your parent may feel judged. Share what you know about alcohol’s effects as you get older, as well as any possible medication interactions. If you feel it’s necessary, suggest getting professional advice or treatment.
5. Listening to doctors
Your parents might dismiss the advice they get from their doctors, especially if it’s different from the advice they got when they were younger, or if the doctor is a lot younger than them.
But of course, it’s essential that they follow doctors’ advice. Otherwise, they put their health at risk. You can talk to them about the benefits of listening to their doctors. If they have trouble following recommendations for diet or physical activity, you may want to encourage them to meet with a dietitian or a certified personal trainer who has experience working with seniors.
6. Being honest about health conditions
Your parent may hesitate to share all of their health conditions and concerns with you. And if they have memory problems, they may forget to share them with their doctor, which means they might not get the care and treatment they need.
Encourage them to be honest with you. Explain that you won’t judge them, but you want them to feel comfortable sharing their concerns and health-related information. They may feel as though they don’t want you to worry. Explain that you want to help them stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible and that sharing this information will help.
7. Safe driving
Adult children caring about their parents may find the “car keys conversation” is one of the most difficult ones to have. In most places, driving and independence go hand in hand. But if you notice or hear about concerns with your parent's ability to drive, you have to talk about whether your parent should stop driving. Unsafe driving puts them at risk for car accidents and endangers other people too.
Many older drivers resist this conversation. If your parents talk about not driving at night or not driving to unfamiliar places, that could allow you to ask them what their plans are going forward. Getting them familiar with using rideshare services or senior public transportation services can help them understand that giving up the car keys doesn’t mean giving up their independence. If you think they’re no longer able to safely drive and they won’t stop, you may want to ask a health care professional to assess their driving skills.
8. Household help
When you’re trying to figure out how to help aging parents with household tasks, you may find that your parents are too proud to ask for help. But it might not be safe for them to scrub a shower or mow a lawn. A fall or accident could mean months of recovery and they may never get back to where they were.
Talk to them about the value of hiring help for some household tasks. You can frame this conversation as a benefit—after a lifetime of housework or yard work, they can relax and focus on other things. Talk to them about the tasks that are the most difficult or unpleasant and outsource those first.
The bottom line
When you have any of these difficult conversations with your parents, you’ll want to be careful to treat them with empathy and respect. The challenges of aging can be significant, so try not to overwhelm them.
“Explain that you are there to support them and ensure they are as independent as they can possibly be. Tell them you want to help make sure they can accomplish everything they need to,” Dr. Fox said. Give them time to process information—you may need to revisit these conversations multiple times.
And, of course, family dynamics are all different. You’ll want to tailor your approach to your family’s situation and your elderly parent’s needs.
If you would like to connect with an expert who can help you learn how to best have these conversations with your parents, reach out to Banner Health.