“Before you contradict an old man, my fair friend, you should endeavor to understand him.” – George Santayana
Maybe you’ve always had communication problems with your parents, or maybe it’s just starting to develop as they age. Either way, there are years of underlying emotional experiences between you. In How to Say It to Seniors, author David Solie outlines where the frustrations and misunderstandings between generations come from. The answer: We assume they’re declining, but they’re still in development.
Soliel calls the generational communication gap the “geriatric gap”. It explains why our parents seem to resist the help we think they need. The conflict lies in control. As Soleil states, our parents are trying to “maintain control over their lives in the face of almost daily losses, and simultaneously to discover their legacy or that which will live on after them.”
These elderly motivators are what is behind their “difficult” communication style. That’s why they skip from subject to subject, tell you the same stories over and over, put off decisions, go on tangents, or give you every detail of something that might seem mundane to you.
The other issue, according to Soliel, is that middle-age agendas are often in direct conflict with those of our parents. Our culture prides itself on busyness. While we’re running here and there completing our to-do lists as quickly and efficiently as possible, mom and dad are reflecting on the past. It can be exasperating.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that our society puts youth on the pedestal where elderly wisdom once sat. As Caring.com points out, our youth-oriented society has “little tolerance or empathy for those who’ve already reached the place we have no desire to go.” This is in direct conflict with older folks who have no choice but to fixate on their health issues, or as Caring.com puts it, “failing bodies are robbing them of mobility, independence, and ultimately, life.”
Growing up, our parents always knew best. But now, we question the way they take care of themselves. Are they taking their meds on time? Is it time to take their keys away? At what point will they need help with daily activities and what’s the plan for that? All of a sudden we think we know what’s best for the people who raised us.
The goal is to have a meaningful dialogue with your parents. We know what doesn’t work: criticism, ultimatums, scolding, sarcasm, impatience, and lecturing. These approaches lead to frustration, anger, embarrassment, puzzlement, shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy. Here are some communication strategies to help you effectively and productively communicate with an older parent who won’t listen.
Solicited vs. Unsolicited advice
In a study published under the title ‘My Parent is so Stubborn,’ researchers found that “Aging parents may respond to advice or help with daily problems from their grown children by insisting, resisting, or persisting in their ways or opinions, behaviors which are commonly viewed as stubbornness.” On the flipside, Psychology Today states that “People who give unsolicited advice do so not because they necessarily care about the receiving audience but because giving advice gives them a sense of control and order.”
Look inward. Of course, you care about your parent’s wellbeing and your concerns are coming from a good place, but perhaps the need to dole out unsolicited advice is also coming from a need to control the situation. Recognize that your parent is autonomous as they ever have been. Respect that they are still capable of making their own decisions. Be encouraging and supportive, but don’t give advice until its asked for.
You have got to listen
You may think the problem is that your parent isn’t listening to you, but are you listening to them? DailyCaring suggests asking your parents what they want and trying to accommodate them. Soliel writes that older folks tend to “reflect backward, not forward in their thinking.” This is why when you’re talking about the matter at hand, often mom or dad will start talking about the old days.
Be patient, pay attention, and don’t interrupt. In an article entitled ‘Improve Elderly Communication: Demystifying Your Aging Parents’ New Stage of Life,’ Caring.com senior editor Connie Matthiessen writes, “if they bring up something that seems unrelated to the matter at hand, it’s always tempting to interrupt and steer them back on track. But if you pay attention, you may find that a seemingly irrelevant point indicates a concern you weren’t aware of. Encourage your parents to reminisce, and pay careful attention to the story behind the story.”
Agree to disagree
Instead of letting a disagreement lead to an argument, simply acknowledge your parent’s opinion and change the subject. Fighting about it isn’t going to change their mind. Solie says to “sidestep power struggles whenever possible and to instead try to build a partnership.” Stay calm and try to find some common ground.
It’s not you, it’s me
If you’re not communicating with “I” words, you’re doing it wrong. As Tony Robbins asserts, “By pointing out what they’ve done wrong or how they’ve made you feel upset, sad or angry, you’re either trying to make them feel as bad as you feel or you’re trying to make them change. Neither is a part of creating a healthy relationship.”
Many articles advise making the issue about you instead of them. And if you think about it, whatever the issue is, it kind of is about you. If it were bothering them, they’d take care of it. Your parent’s fear of becoming a burden is almost as great as their fear of losing control, so play on that. Honestly express how their unwillingness to listen is affecting you and explain why.
Ask open-ended questions
When there’s a sensitive topic you need to discuss, contemplate how to bring it up in an effective manner. Appeal to their reflective nature by bringing up memories or experiences. Ask open-ended questions. This way, you’ll end up with more information, including their feelings, attitude, and understanding of the subject at hand.
Perhaps your parent isn’t listening because they can’t hear or understand you. Like a good BBQ, communicating with parents is best done low and slow. Lower the pitch of your voice for hard-of-hearing parents, and slow down the pace of your speech. Sometimes people who have lost a lot of their hearing rely on reading lips. When you’re with them, make sure you are facing them when you speak. Use your hands–sign-language slang, if you will–to drive home a point.
Be considerate, not condescending
Not only do you need to be mindful of the pitch and pace of your speech, but you also have to (as your parents probably told you growing up) watch your tone. Respect your elders–don’t patronize them.
Daily Caring notes that “Anyone who feels yelled at, harangued or bullied will often back away from the conversation and shut down communication.” You’re more likely to get positive results by being considerate, respectful, and accepting.
Take time to make time
As our buddy Soliel says, in How to Say It to Seniors, middle-aged people are literally moving faster than their parents. We’re busy checking off to-do’s–from family to work responsibilities. Older people move more slowly and we tend to get frustrated and blame them. That’s why it’s important to carve out a substantial amount of time to stay in touch regularly.
Caring.com suggests regularly making “time for lunch, a cup of tea, or a weekend visit if you live far away.” We don’t have to tell you, you won’t get this time with them back. But also, as caring.com asserts, you’re “more likely to have the conversations that reveal underlying concerns.” Keeping the lines of communication consistent makes it easier to bring up the tough topics when they arise.
“Age is an opportunity no less than youth itself, though in another dress.” H.W. Longfellow
Your parents probably taught you the golden rule, so treat them like you hope to be treated as an elderly parent. A Place for Mom recommends trying to “understand the motivation behind their behavior.” As Soliel asserts, the elderly are motivated by maintaining what control they can. He suggests connecting with your parent’s control concerns by appreciating their age-based agendas and recognizing how they clash with your own internal agendas.
Aging is a lesson in the art of losing. Slowly, you lose everything you’ve worked hard for your whole life: your career, your health, your spouse, your peers, and your house. Consider what that must feel like. A Place for Mom says to factor in that “Many older adults are living with dementia or mental health issues, including anxiety.” They also advise to ask yourself, “Are they acting this way out of habit, to assert independence, or because they’re depressed or confused or have dementia? What are they afraid of?”. Being understanding of your parent’s beliefs, feelings, experiences, and intentions can give you a more empathetic perspective of their behavior.
Choose your battles wisely
Priorities, people! When a problem, argument, or confrontation presents itself, ask yourself if it’s really worth getting involved. Evaluate the severity of the problem and do a little cost-benefit analysis. If it is important, then intervene. Otherwise, let it go. As A Place for Mom puts it, “Most people don’t respond well if they feel they are constantly being nagged. Your parents are much more likely to take your concerns seriously if you learn to only bring attention to certain ones.”
It’s also important to pick your battleground. Wait to have the discussion until they are fed, rested, and in a relatively good mood. Make sure there are no outside distractions, like the TV so they can focus on what you’re saying.