Family

Difficult Conversations: Aging Parents & Safety

5 steps for having more productive discussions with your loved ones.
Micah Rakoff Bellman  ·
November 9, 2020  ·
11 minute read
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How do I get my aging parents to hear my concerns about their safety?

Aging carries a significant stigma, and your parents may feel insecure about acknowledging their changing needs as they age. By listening and building empathy, you’ll be able to better understand your parents’ feelings and overcome these difficult conversations together.

Safety concerns meet resistance

When you care about someone—a child, a parent, or a spouse—it’s normal to worry about their safety. Unfortunately, your loved one may not share your concerns.

I still remember the terror I felt as a child at my mother screaming bloody murder the first time I walked into the street without looking both ways. I remember feeling shaken up and almost hurt at the time—but it worked! Since then, I never forget to look both ways when I cross the street (especially when my mom is watching).

Closeup photo of a child with blue eyes crying.

Photo by pixabay via pexels.

While these lessons work well on children, you’ll be met with serious resistance if you express safety concerns for adult loved ones this way. More challenging—even when you try to express your worry more gently, you’ll still get pushback.   

If you’ve tried to discuss safety with an aging parent or loved one, you’ve likely heard things like:

  • “Grab bars are for old people! You think I’m old?” 
  • “I’m not that old! I can take care of myself!”
  • “There’s no way you can make me put that hospital-looking stuff in my home!”
  • “You’re not the boss of me! You can’t talk to me like that—I’m your parent!”
  • “Enough already—leave me alone!”

At least one thing is clear from these common objections—people are incredibly resistant, even just to talking about aging and safety.

This resistance is problematic for several reasons.

Concerns for well-being

Your parent or loved one might not be concerned about their safety, but the statistics on falls speak for themselves.

Falls are the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations for Canadian seniors. A 2010 Health Canada study found that fall-related injuries included broken bones, concussions, brain injuries, scrapes, bruises, blisters, sprains, and strains. 

Each year, approximately one in three Canadians aged 65 and up will have a fall. Of that third, 30% are hospitalized as a result, with 67% of these cases being treated in an emergency room setting. 

These stats are just the tip of the iceberg, and some falls can even be fatal. 

In short, your concern for your loved one’s safety is valid. If your loved one is unwilling to hear your concerns, they will remain at-risk.

Your own mental health

Photo by Karolina Grabowska via pexels

Although this might not be your main concern, your own mental health can suffer if you’re dealing with aging parents who won’t listen to your concerns about their safety.  

In an article for HelpGuide, Melinda Smith discusses how a caregiver’s stress and concern for a loved one’s well-being can morph into caregiver burnout when left unresolved:

“...taking care of yourself isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Cultivating your own emotional and physical well-being is just as important as making sure your family member gets to their doctor’s appointment or takes their medication on time. ”

Although your stress and anxiety are normal, worrying about a loved one’s safety can take its toll. Overcoming your parent’s resistance to safety solutions could help relieve a significant burden for both of you.

Your relationship with your loved one

Over the years, your concern for your loved one’s safety has probably clashed with their sensitivity toward discussing it. It’s possible that you’ve both felt resentful and frustrated with each other, and the dynamic of your relationship has suffered as a result.

This makes sense. If you want to help your parent, but they feel oppressed by your attempts to help, conflict will be a regular part of your interactions.

Photo of an angry-looking bald man sitting across a table from a woman with light brown hair having a difficult conversation.

Photo by Joshua Santos via pexels

How to talk through resistance

We’ve now established that your parent’s resistance to discussing their safety needs is a problem for 3 reasons:

  • Left unresolved, their well-being is at-risk;
  • The burden of worrying about their well-being is bad for your mental health, and;
  • Your relationship with them suffers when you express concern.

These factors can make even the idea of trying to have a difficult conversation with your parent or loved one overwhelming. The stakes will feel incredibly high.

If you’re still reading, you probably know this better than most. You might feel like giving up; like the only way your parent might hear your concerns is if they fall and injure themselves—or worse!

You might feel like it’s not even worth the stress of having these difficult conversations at all.

You’re not alone in this feeling.

Every day at HealthCraft Group, our team speaks with families looking for safety solutions for their loved ones. As a fall prevention company, we’ve experienced this resistance first-hand almost every day for over 25 years.

We’ve learned that if you want to overcome this hurdle, you need to find ways to de-escalate the conflict without avoiding it.

The elephant in the room

In his 2019 TEDxKeene Talk—How to Lead Tough Conversations—conflict resolution expert Adar Cohen explains the notion that every group has an elephant in the room—a difficult conversation that they’re avoiding out of fear that it will make things worse.

His first piece of advice is to move toward the conflict because it represents the core of the issue holding you back, and the only way to overcome the issue is to work through the conflict:

“Conflict is information, and handled well, conflict is opportunity.”

Below are some tactics to help you navigate discussions on safety with your aging parents. While we can’t promise they’ll make these difficult conversations completely painless, they can help you achieve more productive outcomes.

1. Acknowledge your own feelings

Finding suitable at-home safety solutions isn’t just about your parent’s well-being—it’s also about your own. Before you even start the conversation, you need to have a clear understanding of your feelings, and how this conflict is impacting you. 

It’s easy to remove yourself from the equation by saying, “If dad doesn’t stop being stubborn about his safety needs, he’s going to hurt himself.” The truth is more nuanced. It’s more like, “I’m worried that if dad doesn’t stop being stubborn about his safety needs, he’s going to hurt himself.”

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via pexels

How does thinking about your parent’s safety (or lack thereof) make you feel? Anxious? Afraid? Angry? Stressed? Exhausted? Figure out what your feelings are and name them before engaging in any discussion. This self-awareness will make it easier to:

  • explain yourself clearly and concisely;
  • stay calm; and,
  • focus on listening.

2. Have a plan

Photo of thick rimmed glasses on top of a weekly planner notebook.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs via pexels

Even nice surprises—like a cake, a birthday party, or plane tickets—are not everyone’s favourite thing, so it should be no surprise that springing a difficult conversation on your loved ones is not a good idea.

For this reason, we recommend picking a specific place and time to talk in advance of the conversation and sharing this plan with your loved one. You don’t need to share all the details of the conversation at this point. The goal here is to give them some notice so they can mentally prepare for the conversation.

Having a plan can also help you craft your approach for the desired outcome. In a 2017 piece from the Harvard Business Review called How to Have Difficult Conversations When You Don’t Like Conflict, author Joel Garfinkle says to expect a positive outcome:

“Focus on the long-term gains that the conversation will create for the relationship. When your attention is focused on positive outcomes and benefits, it will shift your thinking process and inner dialogue to a more constructive place.”   

The opposite can also be true. If you go into a conversation expecting a total meltdown, it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having a plan will help everyone manage their expectations, and start the difficult conversation on equal footing.

3. Understand your parent’s feelings

Photo of an old woman standing in front of a mirror looking to the side.

Photo by Luiz Medeiros via pexels

If you’ve taken time before the conversation to understand your feelings and plan for success—your first goal during the conversation should be to understand your parent’s feelings. This will help you reach a mutual understanding, and hopefully, a mutually-beneficial outcome.

You can accomplish this in two ways:

Listening to them

Adar Cohen believes that staying quiet at the beginning of the conversation (and as much as possible throughout) is a good listening practice:

“Some of the best breakthroughs I’ve seen in really difficult conversations have emerged out of a brief period of silence. Don’t rush in to rescue everyone from that awkward moment; it’s your job to show them that moment is okay.”

Staying quiet gives your loved one time to compose their thoughts and feelings. It also leaves room for your loved one to share things that they might have not felt comfortable sharing in the past.

Not making assumptions

Even if you’ve had versions of this conversation with your loved one before—and you think you know how they will react—hold back your assumptions.

Just because your loved one has refused help in the past, doesn’t mean that they don’t want help at all. Even if your loved one responds the way you think they would, asking questions to better understand where that thought is coming from can create a fuller picture. 

Adar Cohen recommends trying to ask questions as if you don’t know anything about the situation. “Ask questions about people’s experiences, and listen to what they say,” explains Cohen. It will help your loved one feel heard, and feeling heard will encourage them to keep sharing.

4. Be patient

Photo of an old woman and her adult daughter talking in a stone-walled garden.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via pexels

People from older generations sometimes have different approaches to dealing with uncomfortable emotions or disagreements. To help them feel more comfortable, you need to be patient with them. You can do this by:

  • remaining calm;
  • speaking slowly; and,
  • staying focused on listening.

These techniques can keep the conversation running smoothly and help your loved one feel more in control.

Also, when you respond to them, resist the urge to give advice or offer commentary immediately, as this can be seen as judgemental. Instead, focus on sharing your own feelings and experiences; show vulnerability. By doing so, you’re leading by example, which could make it easier for your loved one to eventually echo your vulnerability.

Finally, don’t push for a rapid resolution. Even if you’re tired of negotiating your parent’s safety, don’t force a quick solution. Instead, understand that this will likely be one of many conversations.

If you’re patient, and you understand that you’re working towards a long-term positive outcome, you and your loved one will reach a place of empathy and understanding sooner.

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5. Be respectful

Although this should go without saying, difficult conversations tend to be emotionally-charged, and it’s easy to overlook some basic principles of respect. A 2017 article from Psychology Today outlines some useful ground rules for any difficult conversation.

Aside from the basics like no name-calling or interrupting the other person, one key thing to remember, especially if you’re dealing with aging parents, is that they’re adults. This means a couple of different things.

First, you need to remember that even if your concerns are coming from a place of love and care, your parent could still feel attacked when you share them. The fact that you—their child—are taking on a parental role in your relationship can be a confusing role reversal.

Black and white photo of a child and an elderly woman reading a book.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood via pexels

Going back to an example from earlier, if I was trying to convince my mother to install grab bars in her shower, screaming at her the way she screamed at me to teach me how to cross the road safely would be the wrong approach (seriously, mom, I forgive you).  

On top of this role reversal, be mindful that safety and aging are sensitive topics, that your parent might feel insecure about the changes they’re experiencing, and that even if your intentions are good—any concerns you share could feel like nagging.

Photo of an old man in a Supreme baseball cap eating ice cream.

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana via pexels

Finally, it means that your parents are autonomous individuals and have the right to make decisions you don’t agree with, and that’s okay! 

‘Getting your way’ shouldn’t be the goal of this conversation, anyway. Instead, you should be focused on reaching a mutually beneficial outcome that allows everyone to move forward with dignity, peace of mind, and mutual understanding.

It’s time to start the conversation

If you’ve made it this far, this is probably not the first time you’ve tried to convince a parent or family member that they need to make a change. But now, you understand that having these difficult conversations isn’t about changing their mind or ‘winning’.

Mostly, the key to having productive conversations about any sensitive topic is listening. If you listen carefully, you’ll be able to empathize and have a better understanding of the other person’s feelings.

Photo of a family of four walking holding hands.

Photo by Emma Bauso via pexels

Remember—any loss of ability or autonomy is jarring—whether you’re learning how to safely cross the street for the first time or navigating an adult child’s concern for your well-being. Be mindful of how your expression of concern might make the other person feel. 

If you acknowledge your feelings, have a plan, understand your parent’s feelings, and exercise patience and respect—you should be able to navigate the topics of aging and safety more comfortably, together.

If you love someone and care about their well-being, you’ve probably experienced this before. If you have any tips that worked well for you that we missed, you can share your story by joining the conversation on social media.

Micah Rakoff Bellman is a content creator at HealthCraft Group. An enthusiastic problem solver, human-centered designer, and storyteller—he’s passionate about understanding people to help them live better.
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