By Francine Russo
Nov. 14, 2022
As middle-aged children of aging parents, we often worry about the ways Mom or Dad manage their homes, their health, their finances and even their love lives.
We can see so many things that would help them live better, from hiring a housekeeper to downsizing their home; from moving their money out of a low-interest bank account to consulting a pulmonologist about their lungs. Their lives could be so much healthier, safer and more enjoyable if only they’d listen to us.
Yet, so often they don’t.
If you’d like to increase the odds they’ll heed your advice, try these strategies:
Change your attitude
Too often when we think we know what’s best, we come across as patronizing, overbearing, or worse. You may be right about what is beneficial for your mother’s finances or health, but you do not want to communicate: “You don’t know what you’re doing. Let me tell you what to do,” says Dr. Gloria Lopez-Henriquez, a family therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. First and foremost, show respect. And be sure to express your love and appreciation.
Instead of being critical of what you see as wrong or even crazy, learn what these issues mean to your parents. Show interest in them as people. An important milestone of emotional maturity (which many of us reach in middle age and others of us, never) is learning to see our parents not just as Mom or Dad but as separate human beings with their own lives, interests, needs and fears.
Ask them questions as you might of other people you genuinely want to know. Perhaps your dad’s family was impoverished because of failed investments. Maybe your mom came from a culture where family comes before individuals. Perhaps Mom keeps her cereal bowl next to the sofa (which looks unkempt and makes no sense to you) because she has trouble walking, and leaving it there saves her steps on the way to breakfast.
Respect and validate your parents’ decisions, even when you’re suggesting they change course. Adi Loebl, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Ackermann Institute, proposes helping Dad find a new financial strategy, for example, by saying: “I understand this kind of savings account was the model for saving when you were young, but things have changed. I’m worried it might not give you enough money for your future needs. Can we talk about this? Or would you want to bring it up with your financial advisers?”
Are you doing this for your parents—or yourself?
Of course, you want to help your parents. But if you dictate to them what they should do because you know it’s a good idea, there is some chance that something else is going on. You may want them to finally see and acknowledge, for example, that you are a good child. If that’s the case, says Karen Gail Lewis, a Washington, D.C., area psychotherapist, “then it’s more about the child’s need than the parent’s.”
Learn to manage your own emotions
Change rarely comes easy, especially for older people. Your anxiety or other emotions may interfere with your ability to be patient. “If you can, put these feelings aside,” says therapist Matt Lundquist, clinical director of Tribeca Therapy. It’s important to do “self-preparation,” he says, perhaps running your thoughts past others for reality testing. If your emotions are out of control, you might consider individual or family therapy to help you and your parents move forward.
Factor in the quality of your relationship
If the relationship has been good, that’s a huge help, but these conversations can still be hard. If you’ve had a strained relationship, make efforts to improve it now. Start by acknowledging your part in the tensions: You might say, suggests Dr. Loebl, “I know we’ve had stresses in the past. I just want to be sure that going forward, I can be as helpful as possible.” Even small steps can help. Invite them out to dinner more; call more frequently; send them a favorite treat they can’t get locally. Overall, think more about what they want.
Think issues through together
Don’t come to your parents with answers but with questions. Open up a discussion. Mom, I’ve noticed that rug shifts a little when we walk on it and the banister feels loose. Do you ever worry about falling? If she seems open to talking about it, offer suggestions. Would you like me to get a nonskid liner for the rug? Would you consider having one of those home-safety experts take a look at the place? You might say to your father: Dad, I know you enjoy gardening, but your knees hurt so much! Would you consider having a gardener? I could bring a couple for you to interview. Then you could just try it out.
Realize the sacrifices you’re asking your parents to make
Moving out of their lifelong home, for example, may be better for their health and safety, but is a huge blow for them, especially if they’re experiencing other losses, such as failing mobility or lessening independence. “It a huge leap,” says Dr. Loebl, “to acknowledge decline: ‘All my life I relied on my own judgment,’ Dad thinks, ‘but my kids say I need to have an aide.’”
Enlist help from people they trust
Many parents cannot take advice from their children. Think about people they respect: a brother, a dear friend, a minister. Suggest you talk about it all together. Or if that’s a nonstarter, whisper into your uncle’s ear to bring this up with Dad.
Learn to deal constructively with their resistance
If none of these strategies work, appeal to your parents’ caring for you. Mom, I accept that you’re comfortable and feel safe living alone in this big old house, but I worry all the time about what could happen. I don’t want to lose you! Will you consider getting an aide? Or moving to that senior residence where your friend Bess lives? Would you do it for me?”
Back off and try again later
Research shows that people need to hear an argument several times before they open up to it, says Mr. Lundquist. “Wait a bit and come back to it from a different angle,” he says. “Maybe they were dealing with too much before.”
As long as your parents are mentally competent and not a danger to themselves or others, your options are limited. Try to accept that your parents are doing what they need to do for themselves; they’re not rejecting you.
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