Communication & Aging Parents – Negotiation From a Bird’s View

Communication is the key to any human interaction. We know from our own aging experience that opinions very often change with time and experience. Indeed, the very perspective from which we perceive and process information will be quite different as physical or mental limitations inherent in the aging process affect us.

Many efforts between adult children and their aging parents around the delicate issue of elder care become stalled or even fractured. Why?

A failure to adopt simple and effective communication skills is often the culprit. “He’s just so ____!” or “Why won’t she listen?” are symptoms that often can be avoided or remedied with some forethought and care.

It’s a Negotiation

Remember being a teenager? And maybe then parenting one? Two opinionated parties with differing views of one another’s abilities and perspective battling for control.

Now fast forward to communicating on the subject of inevitable elder care decisions. Déjà vu perhaps? If you simply survived the former, it’s time to rethink strategy. If you worked it out before, remind yourself and your loved one of this, and how you did it.

The renowned Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts has for decades successfully applied its Mutual Gains Approach, in which parties:

  • assess common interests
  • identify differences
  • keep an eye on the best (and worst) outcome if no negotiation is reached
  • in fields as diverse as business communication, military and international treaty negotiations, and affordable housing.

What does this have to do with you? A willingness to investigate your negotiation partner’s desires and motivations, and to apply tested techniques to limiting those areas that we call differences applies no matter the human context.

Take the Bird’s Eye View

Missteps can be costly, both because your relationship can be damaged and also for lost time or other resources. Think about the whole life situation first, from the point of view of a full elder life.

It is helpful to consider health, household upkeep, nutrition and meal preparation, finances, recreation, volunteer/other work. And any other activity or circumstance in the aging family member’s life for the recent and distant past.

Record your thoughts as inquiries-what the elder person can do– rather than stated absolutes such as what he can no longer do or must do to conform to your ideal.

When Is it Time?

Those who behave calmly and effectively in crisis do so only because they have planned for it. Planning for financial security is a social norm starting in one’s early thirties.

Why do we not communicate about aging issues at least by our 50s? In most cases, vulnerability and fear of the unknown paralyze us.

No matter when you start, remember that it will take time to develop not only the language of a cooperative dialogue, but also for mental processing and then incremental adjustment to any change.

Where Do You Begin?

Effective communication requires a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Even when you buy food, the vendor and you act professionally: he trusts you to pay and you trust in his goods or services.

Part of your bird’s eye view must be to evaluate family relationships with the aging members. Work within the best relationships first, where the ears are already open.

A light hearted conversation about what you have done in the past year and wish to do in the coming year can offer many opportunities to listen, ask for advice that stimulates an important planning topic, or to plant a seed for future exploration.