Discussing Difficult Life Issues with Ageing Family Members- Dos & Don’ts

The process of aging is often said to be a journey, but not all journeys are created equally. It seems that at least some people eventually find themselves in a fight against time and often without the resources they need to win. If you’re struggling with how best to help aging family members when they’re facing tough times, this post will provide you with some things to consider.

Talking about issues facing aging adults, such as finances, health, driving, help in the home, moving and death, is frequently difficult for both family members and older adults. Thinking your words through ahead of time and avoiding major pitfalls can make your important family discussions more productive.


Do be prepared

Older adults are often reluctant to talk about difficult issues, you can increase the odds of a productive conversation by being well-informed, carefully choosing a time and place for the discussion, and by preparing your older family member.

Be well-informed. Before getting together with your family member, bone up on the issue (e.g., online resources, books) so that you are able to explain health and financial issues in an understandable way. When heading into a difficult discussion with an older family member, you must be emotionally, factually, and strategically prepared. Emotionally, you should try to be neutral, respectful, and considerate. Factually, you must do your homework.

Before starting to talk, research the relevant facts or resources you want to bring to the table. Strategically, decide where, when (probably not at Thanksgiving dinner), and who else in the family should be present or informed ahead of time, so things can go as smoothly as possible.

Do include both your concerns and the concerns of the older adult

When you speak with an aging parent about managing finances or transportation, for example, consider how you’d like to see the situation handled and then listen to her ideas on the subject. While your preferences may be different from hers, if you each understand one another’s concerns, it’s much more likely that everyone will be happy with the solution.

Remember that this is a discussion and not an ultimatum. Another way of thinking about the conversation is that you are talking with someone, and not simply talking to them. Listening on both sides may be something you have to ask for–and ask of yourself–more than once.

Do choose your words carefully when discussing difficult topics

When we have challenging discussions, as we may with aging family members, it’s important that we choose our words carefully. There are important reasons to do this. First, it is often difficult for older adults to hear the word “No.” The word itself can be upsetting and many people feel that saying “no” means the person is being judged. Second, some people are used to avoiding confrontations and would rather avoid them whenever possible.

When you broach a subject that may be difficult to hear, try being direct and get to the point. Saying something like “I want to let you know that I’m worried in light of the problems we’ve been having with your bank account” gives the other person an opportunity to absorb what you’re saying before going any further.

Discussing money, in particular, is often difficult because people don’t like talking about how much they have or don’t have. Even if you don’t start by talking about money, your loved one will inevitably be concerned about what the change in his or her finances might mean. If you’re the responsible adult and he or she is the dependent adult, be prepared to talk at least briefly about what a reduction in income will mean financially for him.

Do be honest

Honesty is a virtue, and the concept of honesty includes being diplomatic and taking baby steps on a “hot” topic. At the end of the day, stating what you feel must be said in a way that protects your rights and respects the rights of others. Being honest does not mean being heartless or demeaning; rather, it means you can make your clear case for planning, dealing with health problems, hiring help in the home, moving and driving. Rehearsing before your conversation can help.

Do work to build trust

Do not be surprised if your older relative does not trust someone trying to help them. While this may feel hurtful to you, remember that trust is always earned, not guaranteed. How you respect the feelings and dignity of the other person in the conversation will go a long way in helping to build and maintain their trust.

Do strive for realistic outcomes from the initial discussion

Working with older relatives in difficult situations is rarely solved in one day or in one conversation. For the initial discussion, ensure that there can be more discussions later–no matter what happens. Sometimes, planting seeds is all we can do to help others.


Do not be deceitful

Lying or deception may seem like ways to avoid difficult conversations. However, these tactics can have lasting negative effects. If you are deceitful, who will your family members trust next time they need help?

If you lie to an older adult about a health concern or financial situation, this individual may not trust your advice when it’s actually needed. While there are many ways to tell a truth, lying–or attempting to hide the truth–rarely works well and can make a situation much worse.

Do not parent your parent

Don’t tell her what to do or give her orders. This can be difficult, especially when the subject is a specific financial decision, such as how to handle a monthly medical expense or stop excessive credit card charges.

Be careful not to make statements that sound like you’re talking down to your older adult or being critical of his choices. The best way to accomplish what you want is to stay positive, repeat your goals, and propose solutions that you both feel are appropriate.

While you may be in a position of taking charge of many things in an older adult’s life, be aware that you are not becoming their parent. Instead, you are hopefully trying to help them maintain dignity, even though aspects of their existence need additional support from others

Do not promise more than you can deliver

This is very difficult because it is easy to say, “I will never put you in a nursing home.” However, if this becomes necessary later on, you will feel horribly guilty. Rather than make an unrealistic promise, it is far better to “promise” what you can do, such as remain emotionally connected no matter what happens. This is vital even though you cannot promise what you may or may not do–if circumstances change down the road.

Do not threaten or coerce

Threats and coercion are counterproductive and usually don’t work. If your parent or aging friend has lost her driving privileges because she can’t see well enough to drive anymore, she may be afraid to discuss this important subject with you. A little gentle empathy could go a long way toward opening up discussions around difficult issues, especially if what’s being discussed is something she sees as a potential threat.

“I can see that you’re concerned about losing your independence, so I understand why you feel the need to keep driving. However, I’d like to know what alternatives you’d like to pursue.”

As tempting as this might be, especially when the older adult is being obstinate, do not threaten or coerce (like taking away her/his driver’s license). This will only fan the emotional fire and leave everyone feeling worse.

You might say: “I understand that you’d like to stay on the road, but we do need to think about the safety of other people around you.”

A common frustration in dealing with an older adult who wants to do something wrong is that they can’t see how they’re making a mess of things. For this reason, it may be helpful to consider other ideas or considerations ahead of time. For example, “How likely is it that….” are useful questions to ask when talking about the possible consequences of a particular situation.

Do not try to solve or resolve everything at once

Difficult discussions and topics are challenging for emotional, symbolic and real reasons. Family lives are always a work in progress. You must work to make it “progress” in the right direction, rather than make it a rush to completion.