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Senior father in wheelchair and young son on a walk.

Unlocking the Communication Code of Aging Parents

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

                                                                -George Bernard Shaw

If boomers think they had issues in the past communicating with their parents, try adding in their new role as caregiver.  They have quickly discovered how unprepared they actually are for the volatile conversation about provocative topics that dominate the last phase of life.  Not surprising, they are coming for these experiences frustrated, confused and deeply upset about “what went wrong” despite their best intentions.

While it would be convenient to blame this all too common disconnect between generations on the eccentricities of their aging parents, the real problem can be traced back to the messages boomers are sending them.   For the most part, they are based on outdated assumptions about the psychology of older adults.  No matter how hard they try, they cant’ avoid delivering the wrong message.  What can make this better?

The good news is that by updating their understanding of the  psychological agenda of their aging parents, boomers can use these new insights to dramatically improve the receptivity and effectiveness of their messaging.  The key to finding this new intergenerational fluency is to adopt language that connects with their parents developmental tasks.

Different Age Groups, Different Tasks

From a developmental psychology perspective, each of life’s five stages come with two oppositional tasks that need to be completed so the individual can move on to the next stage.  The five stages are defined as childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and old age,

Developmental theory holds that these tasks are the drivers of personality growth, the internal engine that propels a person forward. While these stages and their tasks are well documented in children and adolescence, their identification and significance for older adults has only recently been understood and appreciated.

Beginning in their late-sixties, older adults find themselves confronted by two seemingly paradoxical tasks that provoke conflict and change:

  • Preserve control in a world where all control is being lost.
  • Create a legacy in a world where time is running out.

One task requires hyper-vigilance to guard against an unending series of losses that threaten to push life out of control.  The other task requires a reflective pause, a review of life’s events, and an eventual letting go.  Each task is pulling in a different psychological direction, one struggling to last and one preparing to leave.

The Battle for Control

In addition to the losses associated with changes in health and functional ability, aging parents are experiencing equally painful losses in other areas of their lives that intensifies the scope and complexity of the battle for control. These include:

  • Loss of family
  • Loss of peer group
  • Loss of status
  • Loss of productive engagement
  • Loss of home
  • Loss of driving
  • Loss of financial independence

As the losses mount and control is involuntarily surrendered, older adults run out of options.  Failure to underestimate the intensity and impact of these losses can derail the best intentions boomers to be helpful.  Good advice may be rejected in favor of illogical or shortsighted choices because from a developmental perspective the need for control is greater than the need for medical, financial, or social correctness. 

Control Messages

Given its importance in communicating with aging parents, how do boomers create messages that indicate they “get it” about control?  It requires a new approach in two primary areas:

  • Utilizing language that resonates with the need for control
  • Insuring offers of choice are validated with behaviors that truly support

Words like independence, dependence, choice, loss, and control combined with open-ended questions and reflective summaries provide clear resonance with need to maintain control:

  • What aspects of remaining independent are most important to you?
  • What do you see your choices, based on your current health concerns?
  • Tell me more about why you feel that dad’s health is slipping out of control.
  • Let me see if I understand what you have told me so far about how you intend to age in place.

A similar developmental connection can be embedded in conversations with aging parents about planning issues with “control-friendly“ framing:

  • One of the primary goals of planning is to preserve choice
  • Unfortunately, lack planning results in loss of control at the worse possible time.

It may also be necessary to rename familiar planning techniques that lack developmental resonance.  For example, long term care planning might be recast as long term control planning.  A simple alteration in language can help create a control-focused conversation that reinforces the perception that boomers are both a control confidant and facilitator.

 The Search for Legacy

The developmental counterpoint to preserving control is creating a legacy.  While most boomers have some knowledge of the legacy concept, they may be less informed about its origin and purpose.

The origin of legacy in older adults begins with a deep dive into life review, the retrieving, vetting and reconsideration a lifetime of the most important people and events.  This great and emotional  retrospective gathers the raw material that will answer the primary legacy questions aging parents face at the end of life:

  • What’s the meaning of my life?
  • How did I make a difference?
  • What are my last instructions?
  • Will I be remembered?

Like the need for control, the need to create a legacy is not optional.  Legacy insists on being addressed, either consciously or unconsciously. It is a developmental mandate that flows out of life review for those privileged to survive into old age.

Legacy Messages

 Given its deep psychological and spiritualimportancein the lives of their aging parents, how do boomers create messages that indicate “they get it” about the significance of legacy?  It requires a new approach in two primary areas:

  • Utilizing open-ended questions that facilitate life review.
  • Clarifying and summarizing findings from life review that become essential chapters of the legacy narrative.

Successful communication with aging parents about life review and legacy issues requires a well-rounded repertory of life review questions that could include:

  • What was the most significant event of your childhood?
  • What were your family’s greatest strengths?
  • Tell me about your best friend when you were growing up.
  • What was the happiest time in your life?
  • What has been your greatest accomplishment?
  • If you could change anything in your life, what would it be?
  • What are you most thankful for?

These questions provide a conversation onramps for aging parents to tell their stories.  It is important to remember that the telling of stories is more than simple recall. It is a joinery of discovery for older adults, a connecting of the legacy dots that new insights to people and events that has shaped and defined their lives.   As important, these stories reveal values and themes that form the framework of legacy development.

As with control, a developmental connection regarding legacy issues can be embedded in conversations with aging parents with “legacy friendly” framing

  • The goal discovering and developing your legacy is to define, honor and carry forth what you value the most
  • Unfortunately, lack of legacy discovery and development results in loss that can never be replaced.

It may also be necessary to rename familiar planning techniques that lack this developmental resonance.  For example, estate planning might be recast as legacy search. A simple alteration in language can help create a legacy-focused conversation that reinforces the perception that the advisor is both a legacy confidant and facilitator.

Unlocking the Code

Aging parents are crossing the most the formidable and complex frontier of their lives.  They are engaging developmental tasks that provoke an overwhelming need to maintain some element of control in their lives while at the same time coming face to face with the meaning and significance of their lives as they prepare for the end. This is their mission and undeniable evidence that in life there is work to bone until its over..

If boomers are going to facilitate their parent’s mission, they will need to become better versed in how older adults think and communicate.  Their increased knowledge and skills will allow them to unlock the communication code of their aging parents as well as give them the compassion and patience they need to work with them, not against them.



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