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Talking to My Parents

The following excerpt comes from the transcript of a workshop for members of the "Baby Boom Generation" on conducting family meetings, led by Rev. Dr. Holden in Hawaii in December 2005.

It wasn't the early morning call. It wasn't the hurried preparations and flight to Florida. It wasn't the strange hospital or even the startling news that his mother and father had been holding back information from him over the past years. With both parents in their late 70s, my friend Steve knew there would come a day when their lifelong independence would be shaken by an unannounced change in the health of one or both of them.

This was that day. Steve was confronted with a father in cardiac intensive care, recovering from a heart attack, and a mother with undisclosed memory loss. As bad as this was, it's not what had Steve frustrated and feeling major guilt. It was his failure to get his parents to respond the way he thought anyone would and should in this crisis.

Steve wanted them to take action, to address all the obvious things that needed to be managed and changed. He tried logic, persuasion, sarcasm, guilt and threats. He feigned indifference. He acted out and became aggressive. After three long weeks of daily interactions with his parents, Steve flew home. Defeated and exhausted, he asked himself, why is this so difficult? Sound familiar?

Like millions of other baby boomers, Steve quickly discovered he wasn't prepared to navigate the complicated landscape of his aging parents' lives. He did the best he could with what he knew, but it wasn't enough. He and his parents ended up having a major communication breakdown when they most needed to be partners.

The questions remain:

What went wrong? And how could the situation have been avoided or less traumatic?

Steve was stuck. He didn't know what he didn't know-about older adults. Had Steve lived a hundred years ago when the young and old lived together in extended families and America was a truly a communal society, he would have been bettered prepared. But as a child of the 20th century, Steve grew up in a socially fragmented world where families are scattered and aging parents, more often than not, live somewhere else. They do not see or talk to the family much. Let's talk about what Steve needed to know.

Older adults haven't stopped growing. They don't plateau at 60, 65, or 70. They aren't in a holding pattern, waiting to die or have someone come and take care of them. Although the body is in decline as we age, the mind-for most-is fully armed with a powerful creativity, an intact IQ, exceptional reasoning skills and sound verbal ability. Aging does slow down the processing time of the brain: Older adults can't multitask like they used to, but their reflecting and wisdom are at an all-time high.

Living is like nothing they've ever done. At 65-70 plus the elderly are in the middle of the last growth phase of their lives, Years of "doing" are replaced with "reviewing". They have a pressing need to make sense of the life they have lived and determine how they want to be remembered.

As if sizing up their entire life isn't enough, the elderly also struggle for control in a world where so much personal control is slipping away.

Changes they face include:

  • Diminished health;
  • Friends' and family members' deaths;
  • Not having a productive role anymore;
  • Feeling like a burden;
  • Moving from the "family" home;
  • Turning over financial responsibilities;
  • Children coming back into their life after an absence.

They are attempting to review their lives and fight for control in a world where their age group is often unappreciated.

Don't try this at home, alone. Old age, as actress Bette Davis famously remarked, "is not for sissies." It's also not a place to be alone. Issues they struggle with can overwhelm even the strongest of the elderly and keep them from bring the important events of their life into focus, to say and do the necessary things before they die. Older adults need our partnership for this phase of their lives, our willingness to help them with control issues so they can gather up and weigh the events of their life.

You need to learn the code. The final growth phase of life has its own language and communication code. Learning the right words and how to listen for them and use them, is key to connecting with the elderly. Older adults respond to the language that resonates with their developmental needs. Use words that make it clear they do have control. Signal your desire to support not control them. Learn their boundaries and set your own. For example, "I can plan to be here from___ to ___ and I would like to use that time to assist with…" Lastly, create sharing time, ask about their early lives and help them tell their stories. Don't force memories, we or they cannot bring back lost memories, whether they are recent, past or traumatic.

To his credit Steve took a step back and did his homework on the aging process. He had misinterpreted his parents' behavior and needs. And with new information, he adopted a different approach. Steve learned how to show his parents that they still had some control.

"What do you want me to do about this?" instead of "I have done this or that. "Which of these appointment times would be your first choice?" instead of "I realize that you're retired so I scheduled your appointment at this time." We must remain consistent in your willingness to partner, even if some choices were not that easy.

  • What do you remember about your grandparents?
  • Why did your family move to California?
  • Who was your favorite teacher?

We may be constantly surprised and touched by their answers. We will discover new pictures as to who they are and most importantly we should learn the meanings they now assign to the events of their lives.

The problems facing Steve's parents, our parents and us as we age do not get any easier nor do they go away, but by discovering new approaches to communication we can enrich the partnership between us so that it becomes one of love and sharing, rather than frustration and anger.

Thank you.

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