Dos & Don’ts of Effective Communication with an Elderly Parent

Since elderly parents depend on their children more and more for support with each passing year, the use of appropriate communication skills is necessary to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings between loved ones.

You will more than likely be placed in a position of discussing conflicting sensitive issues with your parents because their goal is to maintain their independence and your goal is for your parents to be happy, healthy, and safe. If discussion is approached in an inappropriate way, these goals may collide, and then the war begins.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Following these simple techniques may help you find common ground where you and your elderly parents can work together as a team to keep the peace.


Do listen

How well you listen is the most important sign you care. This involves not only hearing the words being spoken but also includes keeping an open mind. This creates a safe place where differences of opinion are respected. By truly listening and trying to understand the perspectives and feelings of your parent, solutions to problems are much easier to achieve.

Do ask your parent to elaborate on areas of common concerns

Sometimes people discover their own solutions just by talking their problems out. You can encourage your parent to elaborate on areas of common concern by asking open-ended questions on the topic. You can keep them talking by nodding, maintaining gentle eye contact, and giving verbal cues like saying, “Really?”, or “How interesting.”

These verbal cues are especially important during telephone conversations. You can assure your parent that what they said is understood by paraphrasing back the conversation and acknowledging the spoken and unspoken feelings.

Do provide options for your parent

You may believe that you have the correct solution for your parent, but your parent may not agree. By providing different options as solutions your parent is allowed the dignity and control of deciding what option would work best.

As an example, it may be time for your parent to drastically limit or stop driving. Providing your parent with alternative transportation options will ease the feelings of isolation because community connections can be maintained.

Discuss the public transportation systems, how to use the system, and the expanded areas that could be experienced. Talk about the benefits of walking to nearby shopping for better health, or weekly group taxi rides with friends in the community for the socializing. By focusing on the positive aspects of each option, your parent may be more open to deciding which benefit would contribute the most value to his or her lifestyle.

Do let your parent prioritize the discussions

If you are determined to have a discussion with your parent about driving, when your parent wants to talk about getting the television fixed, neither party to the discussion will walk away satisfied. Allow your parent the opportunity to direct the opening topic of conversation.

Once they are heard and relatively satisfied with the outcome, your parent will be much more open to listening to you. Consider it like the smooth dance of a successful negotiation. The give and take of this opportunity can play in everyone’s favor — a win-win situation.

Do end on a positive note

Express your sincere gratitude for all that your parent has contributed to your life. Be reassuring to your parent that things will work out. Summarize everything that your talk has revealed and the specific areas where you plan to provide support, or to investigate. Make plans for your next visit by setting a future date and a time. This provides an event to plan for both of you, along with a time frame to process information. The most important task of all is to voice your love and respect. Both of you will want to part feeling good about the visit and look forward to your next encounter.


Do not respond in an aggressive style

Aggression is usually displayed when the focus is on getting your way and ignoring the feelings and the rights of your parent. This is not helpful when trying to find solutions to problems. Ask yourself if the issues are as important to your parent as they are to you. If the answer is no, reevaluate your feelings about the subject.

Even when expressing anger, aggressive behavior is not constructive and is usually met with more resistance than cooperation. The goal of expressing anger effectively is to share your feelings in a positive way so that your parent hears what you say versus hearing only that you are angry.

Do not try to discuss every issue in one visit

Think about your parent’s situation and decide the one issue that could make the biggest difference for their comfort, and then work on that improvement. Use small steps to achieve that improvement, or initiate a plan.

Only after a successful conclusion can you effectively move on to the next issue. It is difficult for anyone when bombarded with a whole checklist of needed change. Usually when this happens, nothing gets accomplished.

Celebrate each achievement in some way that is special to your parent. To work as a team, you and your parent need to work together step by step and celebrate each win together. You may find this an incredibly motivating and bonding experience.

Do not avoid the tough subjects

There are many very tough subjects that your parent will need to talk about for their own piece of mind. As your parent’s child, this process could be extremely difficult for you. Your parent may want to discuss what living situation they want if they develop memory deficits.

They may even want to talk about their funeral arrangements or who will get what possession after they’re gone. These are very intimate subjects that you should feel honored in sharing with your parent. You have provided a safe place for them to just talk, and that is a compliment to you.

Do not talk about your parent to someone else as if they aren’t in the room

Not only is this rude, but it can build huge barriers between you and your aging parent. If you are invited to be present when your parent is visiting their doctor, attorney, friend, or anyone else, remember that it is a multi-way conversation, not a two-way.

It may be appropriate for you to add your observations or information into the mix, but it is never acceptable for you to take over by addressing the other party and making decisions for your parent when they are present.

Do not laugh or joke when your parent tries to express their feelings

Your aging parent’s feelings need to be taken seriously. Displaced humor can be horribly demeaning to anyone, but especially for someone of senior age and at the least can be interpreted as disrespect.

Acknowledge your parent’s feelings and address those feelings in a mature manner. You may not agree with what your parent is thinking and you may be of the opinion that your parent’s thoughts are exaggerated, but focusing on reassurance rather than open disregard will build respect for both of you.