Susan Kohler Commentary: “Dymystifying Aging Parents”

Good evening. I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli Counties. When I started preparing for tonight’s commentary, I planned to talk about how to handle stubborn aging parents, a theme that keeps cropping up in conversations with my middle-aged friends. “They are just being stubborn and need to stop!” my friends say. So I decided to research information to support this perspective. I ended up doing a complete 360 and instead will discuss how to demystify your aging parents.
My research led me to several articles by Connie Matthiessen, Caring.Com senior editor. After reviewing these, I began to understand why many of us caring for elderly parents feel bewildered by their decisions–and seemingly stubborn refusal to follow our advice. As Matthiessen says, “We shake our heads over their obsession with the past, their caution, and the glacial pace with which they make decisions and move through the world. As much as we love our parents, dealing with them can often be fraught with tension and frustration, as we try to bridge a communication gap as weary as any we’ve experienced with rebellious toddlers or teenagers.”
The communication gap, it turns out, appears to be caused by different developmental stages that we and our aging parents are passing through. Matthiessen consulted geriatric expert David Solie, who contends that humans continue to face developmental tasks in old age and have pressing needs to accomplish if they are to end their lives with resolution and meaning. In his book How to Say It to Seniors, he describes what elders face and how these tasks shape their behavior–whether they’re aware of it or not. Solie sees the crises of the elderly as conflicts between control and legacy issues.
Loss of control looms large for our parents as they experience the deterioration of their physical health and mental acuity, the loss of their homes and independence, and the deaths of friends and life partners. No wonder elderly people tend to fight for control over the few areas of life they’re still able to manage! Solie maintains that even as they struggle to accept and come to terms with their losses and hold on to what remains, older people are engaged in an effort to shape and understand their legacy –to comprehend what their life has meant and the memories that will live on after they die.
Our middle-age agendas are often in direct conflict with those of our parents, Solie points out. We’re juggling multiple work and family challenges, moving quickly and efficiently through the world. We tend to be in the dark about what our parents are going through, often interpreting their wandering conversational style or stubborn behavior as signs that they’re failing. Thinking it’s in their best interest, we push harder for an agenda which means less control for them. They resist, and the frustrating cycle continues.
What can we do to help improve communication? Consider time and timing. The greatest challenge we adult children face when dealing with the elderly is to slow down and find the time to be fully present. Avoid discussing important issues on the fly. If you need to talk about something crucial with your parents, make a conscious effort to put your personal agenda aside. Remember, such issues will take time and more than one discussion to resolve.
Be sure to listen and pay attention to the ideas and fears your parents may be expressing indirectly. Even if you think they need to move from their home, really listen to what they are saying and be open to other options. When you tell your parents what you think should be done, do so respectfully. If they continue to disagree with you, don’t force the issue. As long as they are fully functioning adults, you can’t force them to follow your advice. Given all the changes they face, your parents are trying to cling to an area of life they can still manage. They appreciate your concern but also may find it a little insulting.
Remember your parents are also focusing, consciously or subconsciously, on their legacy. The idea of being a burden to you and other family members may be mortifying. They know that day will likely come, but they’re anxious to put it off as long as possible. You can use this time to help your parents create their legacy by asking questions and affirming the values they express. You might help record their memories, create photo albums, or just listen.
I realize this is easier said than done, but I think it is key to be aware of where our parent’s agenda may be. Recognizing how it differs from ours as adult children, and realizing how that difference plays out through behavior and communication, are at least steps in the right direction.
This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services and as usual thanks for listening.

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