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Telling Your Parent(s) What to Do:

A Few Gentle Suggestions

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

As our parents age, the roles they played in our lives begin to shift. Here are just a few examples of parental roles we all know: supporter, protector, advisor, disciplinarian, provider of a nurturing environment, teacher. Our parents began to see evidence of role shifts during our teen years as we began to challenge our parents in a number of ways, such as, “Why do I have to do everything your way?” As our parents moved into their 60s and beyond, we observed an unmistakable decrease in physical and cognitive abilities. As one 30-year-old woman put it, “When Mom was 40 or even when she was 50, she was still physically active and sharp. Now at 70, she’s slower in a number of ways.” Whenever anyone we care for begins to show a diminished capacity, we want to help. This brief article offers some beginning guidelines for how to help. It is based upon input from parents whose adult children tried to help, but perhaps not in the way that parents appreciated. Here is what parents said:

1. Understand that we move slower. Don’t march into our lives. Ask first. When we see our parent approach a task in a slower, more deliberate manner, our first reaction may be, “Let me do that, Dad.” Or “Mom, here’s a better way. Let me show you.” Older people want to maintain a sense of control in their life. They may do things more slowly or “the old fashion way,” but your job is to be patient and wait before you jump in.

2. Yes, the house isn’t as clean or organized as it used to be. Before you start re-organizing the living room or the refrigerator or call in a housecleaning crew or hire a gardener, sit down and have a gentle one-on-one conversation that begins something like, “Mom, would you like some help with…?”

3. Don’t criticize. Yes, you now know many things better than your mom or dad. However, check out the following statements to see if any have emanated from your lips:

a. You should/You shouldn’t/You should’ve/You shouldn’t have

b. You need to…. You must….

c. Come on. Hurry up. Get with it.

d. When will you understand that…?

e. I can’t believe you did that.

f. Why do you always….?

g. You never….

There are many other ways we criticize, but you get the idea. Your job is to see if you can avoid these types of phrases and, as you’ve heard many times before, “Take a breath before you speak about something that’s bothering you.”

4. Talk to me about giving up the car. A huge issue for many families has to do with parental driving. While it is certainly OK for siblings to discuss parental driving issues among themselves, at some point early on, one of the children needs to have a one-on-one with mom or dad. Because driving oneself is an important factor in feeling independent, this can be a highly sensitive issue. Once you decide to sit down with your mom or dad, remember to do the following:

1. Start gently. Beginning the conversation with negative comments about your parent’s driving can immediately put up a wall. You may want to begin with something like, “Dad, I want to talk about your use of the car.”

2. Don’t wait. Putting off this important conversation until the last moment can often lead to a minor or major battle. Bringing up the idea with your parent now at a time when things are still OK, can set the stage for a future conversation.

3. Use a professional’s input. Suggest that your parent bring up the topic of driving with his or her doctor. Another approach is to have someone with a driving-school or state-licensing background give your parent a driver’s test.

4. Be ready with alternatives. Some options are: relatives taking turns driving your parent, limiting the radius of driving to a few miles from the house, no freeway driving, and/or other forms of transportation such as rideshare, bus, subway or light rail.

One of two things will happen in our lives: we will die first or we will outlive our parents. It is never easy to watch our mother and father change from energetic people to “old folks.” As the roles gradually begin to reverse, it is important to remind ourselves that there are a number of ways to address these changes. We hope this article has provided some motivation for you to sit down with Mom or Dad and begin an important conversation. They took care of you the best way they knew at the time. Now, it’s your turn to return the favor. Someday you won’t have your parent(s). You won’t.

So, get talking.

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