Role Reversal: Talking to Your Aging Parents

hands of senior with cane© Zoonar/Thinkstock
Clinging tightly to our independence: we’ve all done it for years. We’re well-versed in refusing help, unwilling to accept the notion that we just might need it. As your parents age and struggle with health and mobility issues, you find yourself worrying about them and wanting to help. But remember…they’re not likely to accept your offer with open arms.

Here are a few ideas for talking to your parents about your concerns in a respectful, non-patronizing way:

1. Recognize and respect the significance of this life shift.

When you’ve done things your way for decades, it’s hard to hear the words, “you need help” or “let me help you”—especially from your children. Bear this difficult reality in mind, even when your concerns about mom and dad are burning on the tip of your tongue. Preface conversations with “I can’t imagine how hard this is” or “I have no idea what this is like.”

2. Let them bring it up.

If they don’t mention their declining health (and they probably won’t), ask questions that require specific answers, like “What did you have for dinner last night?” or “What did you get in the mail today?” These will help you gauge their ability to get in and out of the house and keep up with important daily tasks. A vague “How are you doing?” will get you both nowhere.

3. They’re still your parents.

As you enter this new stage of life together—and no matter how dependent they become—remember this truth. Most parents would do almost anything if it meant they wouldn’t be a burden to their children, no matter how genuine your concern, no matter how many times you say, truthfully, “We’d love to have you move in, Dad” or “I would be honored to care for you, Mom.”

4. Give them time.

Unless they’re in a life-threatening situation, your parents will probably be able to manage on their own for a while. They may struggle, they may even experience a minor fall here or there, but decisions about care and where, when and how to receive it should never be rushed or taken lightly. Let them sort it out first; don’t pressure them with an ultimatum.

5. Talk to their friends.

Don’t do it in a gossipy way. Seek out their neighbors and friends and ask them how they feel your parents are doing. If they give a positive report, perhaps you should reevaluate your concerns.

6. Ask how you can help.

Don’t be condescending or bossy, or demand change without hearing their side of the story. Yes, you may need to be direct and assertive, particularly in situations where one or both of your parents is vulnerable and the need is urgent, but you can still express the need for action in a caring, compassionate way. Offer to talk through options together. Get a sense of how they see the situation and fill in the gaps accordingly.


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