How to have difficult conversations with ageing parents

7 September, 2023
Mother and daughter holding hands

Our experienced occupational therapist, Kate Sheehan, shares her top advice for starting difficult conversations with older parents confidently and maintaining a good relationship with them in their later life. 

For many reasons, talking about ageing and raising concerns about future-proofing can be difficult. Some people could be in denial about potential changes physically or cognitively, whilst others might have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. 

It can be challenging for the person wanting to instigate sensitive conversations and the ageing person. Consider the roles in play, such as son, daughter, mother, and father. The role changes through parental ageing can be difficult to adjust to, making conversations even more challenging. 

There are a few things we can consider to help make this a more productive conversation. 

1. Choose the right time and place 

Find a quiet and comfortable setting to have a meaningful and uninterrupted conversation. The environment should be somewhere you both find safe so that there is no perception of threat or insecurity. Make sure both of you have enough time and are in a calm state of mind. 

2. Be empathetic

Begin the conversation by expressing your care and concern for their well-being without being patronising. Let the person know that you want to discuss their future needs to ensure they have the support needed to remain as independent as they want and engage in meaningful activities. 

3. Be an active listener

Encourage the older person to share their thoughts, feelings, and desires. It's essential to listen attentively without interrupting or making judgments. Give them the space to express themselves openly. 

4. Ask open-ended questions

Use open-ended questions to encourage deeper conversations. For example, you could ask, "How do you envision your life in the coming years?" or "What are some things you would like to do or accomplish as you age?" 

5. Explore practical considerations 

Discuss their living situation, healthcare needs, financial resources, and support networks. Talk about any specific concerns they might have and how they can be addressed. 

6. Involve other family members or professionals if necessary 

Depending on the complexity of the situation, it may be helpful to involve other family members or professionals like financial advisors, eldercare specialists, or healthcare providers. Their expertise can provide additional insights and guidance. 

7. Respect autonomy 

While it's important to discuss future needs, respecting the person's autonomy and individual choices is equally important. Recognise that they may have different priorities and preferences and try to find common ground that respects their wishes.   

The person must be supported to make informed and capacitated decisions, regardless of how unwise you think that decision might be. 

8. Develop a plan together 

Once you better understand their needs and wants, work together to develop a plan for the future. This plan could include financial considerations, healthcare arrangements, housing options, and any necessary legal documentation like wills or advance care directives. 

9. Revisit the conversation periodically 

Ageing and future needs are not static. It's crucial to revisit these conversations periodically to ensure that plans are up to date and reflect any changes in circumstances or desires. 

10. Offer ongoing support 

Let them know that you are there to support them throughout the process. Offer your assistance in researching options, connecting them with resources, and providing emotional support. 

The conversation should always be collaborative, respecting the autonomy of what the person identifies as meaningful to them, no matter how meaningful it may or may not be to you. Approach the discussion with empathy, patience, and understanding, and be prepared to listen and adapt as needed. 

For more advice on ageing and looking after yourself with an occupational therapist’s guidance, explore tips for a better night’s sleep or improving confidence in later life. 

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