When Communication with Elderly Parents Gets Tough: 6 Effective Communication Tips Any Family Caregiver Should Know

July 12, 2023

Image: cottonbro studio, Pexels

In a previous article on long-distance caregiving, we went over the challenges and solutions to helping elderly parents from a distance. The main focus was communication with senior family members in a way that fostered empathy, cooperation, and problem-solving.

This time, we want to go into specific tactics and principles you can use any time to overcome the hurdles of communication. That way, you won’t feel like tiptoeing through a minefield when making a request or giving advice to your loved one.

So, let’s explore six effective tips and strategies, based on Nonviolent Communication — and more! — to bridge the generation gap and foster understanding in the most delicate situations.

Why Is Communication with Elderly Individuals So Difficult Sometimes?

Image: Karolina Grabowska, Pexels

Communicating with elderly parents often requires a nuanced approach. While there may be various reasons why communication becomes difficult, it can be helpful to understand the underlying factors:

  • Changing Roles and Independence

As our parents get older, their roles and sense of independence may shift, affecting their communication style. They may feel the loss of control or fear being a burden, which can manifest as resistance or withdrawal in conversations.

  • Generational Differences and The Digital Divide

The ever-evolving landscape of technology and cultural norms has created a generational gap that can hinder effective communication. Language, technological literacy, and values may differ between caregivers and their elderly parents, leading to misunderstandings and miscommunication.

  • Physical and Cognitive Limitations

Age-related factors such as hearing loss, memory decline, or cognitive impairments can make it challenging for seniors to engage in conversation. These limitations may lead to frustration and further communication barriers.

6 Tips to Improve Communication with Elderly Loved Ones

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Drawing inspiration from effective communication, as well as Marshall B. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication (NVC) principles, we learn how to focus on observations, feelings, and needs. This, in turn, generates compassionate and respectful dialogue, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings.

Here are some of the most effective tips you can use immediately to nurture harmonious communication with an elderly parent:

1. Practice Active Listening

One of the fundamental principles of effective communication is active listening. By giving our undivided attention and showing genuine interest, we create a safe space for our loved ones to express themselves fully.

Here is a brief example to illustrate active listening in action:

Family caregiver: “Mom, I noticed you seem a bit down today. Is everything alright?”

Elderly parent: “Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just feeling a bit overwhelmed.”

Caregiver: “I understand, Mom. Would you like to talk about what's been weighing on your mind?”

Parent: “Ever since I started the new diabetes treatment, I’ve been feeling a bit tired and I can’t manage to finish all the household chores.”

Caregiver: “I hear you, Mom. Taking care of everything on your own can be quite demanding, especially with the new treatment. It sounds like you could use some help. How about we think of some options together, like getting someone to do the housekeeping for you?”

In this example, the caregiver expresses their observations and allows their mother to share her struggles. They validate her feelings and offer an empathic response, without pressing for a certain solution. This is what creates a supportive environment, where the elderly parent feels heard and valued.

2. Use “I” Statements:

Expressing your needs and concerns is not always a straightforward task. That’s why incorporating “I” statements into your communication style can be a game-changer in your relationship with your elderly loved one.

Let's consider a common scenario: your father forgets to check in with you when he gets home after an event. This causes you worry and distress. Your instinctive reaction might be to reprimand him, expressing frustration and hurt in an accusatory manner. But what if we approach it with empathy? Try saying:

I feel worried when you don't let me know you're home safe because it adds another layer of stress for me. I’d like you to call or send a text message, so I know you’re okay. Would you consider giving me a call next time, please?”

Using “I” statements offers two significant benefits:

  • Avoiding defensiveness — you create a more open and non-confrontational space for conversation;
  • Conflict prevention or resolution — by expressing your feelings and needs clearly, without blaming and accusing, you have the power to resolve and prevent conflict escalation.

Learn to incorporate “I” statements in an authentic way, and we promise it is going to change your relationship with your loved one for the better.

3. Defuse a Conflict With Humor

Even though it’s not part of the NVC ‘repertoire’, humor can be a powerful tool to break the tension and create a lighthearted atmosphere during difficult conversations. A well-timed joke or gentle humor, especially self-irony, can help defuse conflicts and establish a more relaxed communication dynamic.

Be mindful, though, about the personality and mood of your loved one, as they might not always appreciate a light approach to an issue that matters to them.

4. Pick Your Battles

In the realm of communication with aging parents, it's important to pick your battles wisely. There may be instances when your parent is not ready or willing to discuss certain problems or concerns.

It's crucial to respect their need for space and avoid pushing them into conversations they are not prepared for. Instead, acknowledge their perspective and gracefully step back, allowing them the time and opportunity to process their thoughts and emotions.

Remember, the goal is not always to address every issue immediately. Rather, you need to maintain a compassionate and understanding connection that will gradually pave the way for more meaningful conversations down the line.

5. Refrain from Making Assumptions and Giving Unsolicited Advice

One crucial aspect of effective communication, especially when interacting with elderly loved ones, is avoiding unsolicited advice and judgements.

In many instances, individuals simply yearn to be heard and understood rather than receiving immediate solutions or advice. By offering a listening ear without rushing to provide suggestions, we create a safe space for our loved ones to express themselves openly. This empathic listening approach, as is known in NVC, demonstrates respect for their autonomy, experiences, and wisdom, validating their feelings and perspectives.

Ultimately, we allow the conversation to unfold naturally, fostering deeper connections and building trust.

6. Embrace Affirmative Language

Using negative language, such as “Don't do this” or “Stop doing that,” often triggers resistance and defensiveness. To create a more positive and constructive atmosphere, it's beneficial to reframe our statements and requests.

For instance, instead of expressing dissatisfaction by saying, “I wish you wouldn't play on your phone all day,” we can adopt a more constructive approach. A positive request like, “How about we go for a walk in the park today?” not only encourages engagement, but also promotes a proactive mindset.

You may have noticed that all the advice in this article follows this affirmative pattern. Through affirmative language, we cultivate an environment that encourages growth, collaboration, and positive change.

What If Communication with Elderly Parents Really Seems Impossible?

Image: Brett Sayles, Pexels

Some people are, indeed, more difficult than others. And no matter how much emotional intelligence you manifest, it seems impossible to find common ground sometimes.

Depression, anxiety, and other underlying pathologies can distort the worldview of an elderly loved one, and will sometimes interfere in a conversation that is meant to be constructive. This can feel extremely frustrating and aggravating to a well-intentioned family caregiver.

The Harvard Negotiation Project explains this situation well in their bestselling book, “Difficult Conversations — How to Discuss What Matters Most”.

First off, it’s important to understand that those who are struggling, be it with physical pain or emotional turmoil, are not being difficult on purpose. It’s simply their way of coping with the uncomfortable situation they’re in.

Then there’s the possibility that some people are more prone to anger or are not flexible enough to accept a different worldview.

What you can do is to look at the situation through their perspective, even if it doesn’t make much sense to you. So, instead of trying to “fix” people or “fix” an issue by making someone conform to your expectations — just try to understand and help them.

In one example provided in the book, a woman’s lonely and difficult aunt is always complaining to her about her mother. Having tried “everything” to defuse the tension, as a last resort, she is advised to reframe the situation and agree — to a certain extent — with her aunt, in a humorous and loving tone. By telling her aunt, “you’re right, my mother can be quite annoying, but I know you love each other very much, and that’s what matters most,” she reinforces the valued role she has in the family and alleviates her fear of being alone.

Conflicts often stem from unmet needs, as beautifully explained by NVC. Understanding this principle can help you navigate and resolve challenging situations with empathy and compassion.

Maintain Open Communication via CareAlert

Effective communication with elderly parents is an ongoing process that requires patience, understanding, and adaptability. By implementing these effective communication tips, family caregivers can foster stronger connections with their loved ones.

In today's digital age, technology can play a significant role in maintaining open lines of communication. CareAlert, our complex senior monitoring system, not only does it monitor the environment and well-being of an elderly loved one, but it also offers caregivers a way to maintain communication from a distance. With features like a two-way intercom and vocal alerts using your own voice, CareAlert provides peace of mind for both caregivers and seniors alike.

Our elderly monitoring system offers numerous benefits for your loved ones, in the most discreet way. If you're contemplating purchasing one for your cherished family member, don't hesitate to reach out to our dedicated team. We're here to assist you every step of the way!

5 min read

When Communication with Elderly Parents Gets Tough: 6 Effective Communication Tips Any Family Caregiver Should Know

Communication with elderly parents has its challenges! Discover effective tips and strategies to foster understanding and cooperation.
Written by
Alec Whitten
Published on
17 January 2022


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