June 12

6 Tips for Talking with Aging Parents About Physical and Mental Decline


Do you need help navigating the “tough topics” with your aging parent, such as hiring help or moving them into your home or an assisted care facility?

According to the society of Certified Senior Advisors, some of the most difficult discussions with an aging parent include the need for them to leave their home or give up driving, as well as money and financial issues, and how to maintain their health and well-being.

Here are six tips for talking with an aging parent about these sensitive issues so you can ensure your parent gets the help and care they need.

Are you too busy to read this article right now? Click here to be taken to the summary at the bottom of this page.

1. Learn to Spot These Common Red Flags

Red flags are warning signs that your aging parent might need assistance from you, other family members, friends, or professionals. 

Learn how to spot these common red flags, so you know when it’s time to step in and intervene:

  • Not participating in self-care: If they are not bathing, brushing their teeth, eating healthy, taking vitamins, or getting exercise.
  • Struggling to perform daily tasks: If you notice scorched pots, dishes piled up in the sink or if they’ve started using disposable dinnerware and silverware, sticky spots on the kitchen floor from food spills, an increasingly cluttered and dirty house, or the yard is overgrown.
  • Signs of memory loss: repeatedly asking the same questions, getting lost in familiar places, unable to follow instructions, confusion about people, time, or places.
  • In-home safety concerns: recent accidental falls, difficulty with stairs, unable to read or understand medication instructions, or expiration dates on food packaging.
  • Driving concerns: if they get confused or lost while driving to familiar places, are starting to receive moving or traffic violations, or if you notice they have unexplained dents and damage to their vehicle.
  • Becoming isolated: they no longer participate in activities they used to enjoy, stop visiting with friends and loved ones, and only leave their house when they have to.

You must keep these red flags in the back of your mind when you talk to or visit with your aging parent. 

The sooner you spot the warning signs, the faster they can start receiving the assistance that they need. Don’t wait too long to get help because if you do, your parent’s safety and health could be at risk.

For many reasons, changes occur as a parent ages or faces physical and/or mental challenges in life. When you notice warning signs that indicate your parent might need help, you should do some homework and research the red flags you see that are causing your concern.

Set up a time to talk with your parent and let them know that this is a difficult conversation for you, but that you value their feedback and want to be supportive of their needs.

Don’t be afraid to consult with a professional such as an Aging Life Care Manager, your parent’s Primary Care Physician, or Licensed Therapist if necessary.

2. Practice Active Listening Techniques

Active listening techniques are actions you can take to ensure you understand what your parent is trying to tell you. It helps you avoid missing bits and pieces while your brain automatically fills in the gaps. 

Misunderstandings often happen when you are distracted and not focused on the conversation you’re having. Practicing active listening helps you avoid misunderstandings and lets your parent know that you care about what they have to say.

Practice these active listening techniques to be a more effective listener next time you have a conversation with your parent.

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Ask them to repeat something or explain it further when you need clarification or weren’t sure what they said.
  • Demonstrate concern and understanding by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and leaning forward.
  • Use verbal affirmations such as “I understand,” “I see,” or “sure.”
  • Paraphrase what they said and repeat it back to them to show you understand what they are trying to tell you.
  • Wait until they have completely finished talking before voicing your opinion or providing a response.
  • Share stories of similar experiences you have encountered when relevant to demonstrate you understand their situation and feelings.

In some situations, active listening might not help. If your parent refuses to talk or becomes “standoffish” or “defensive” before you’ve even started talking, it might be time to consider getting help from someone else. You could ask a family member, a friend, or a professional to mediate the conversation.

Our Aging Life Care Managers know precisely how difficult these conversations can be, and we can help you reach a mutual understanding and come up with an agreeable compromise.

Recommended Reading: Ask the Expert: Child Caregivers

3. Empathize With Your Parent and Be Patient

It’s essential to try and see things from your parent's perspective if you want your conversation to go anywhere. To be able to help them, you need to empathize with their feelings and their difficult situation. 

No one enjoys losing their freedom and mobility as they age, and a little patience, compassion, and understanding can go a long way when trying to discuss the challenging issues your parent faces.

“Can you help me understand what my elderly Dad might be feeling. I sometimes think that elderly people are “invisible” to the rest of us.” We never seem to ask ourselves what they’re thinking and feeling as they deal with personal loss, the implications of aging, and the prospect of death.” - Focus on the Family

The above quote is a question posed to Focus on the Family by a reader who wanted help understanding how his elderly dad might be feeling. As adults, we often get so wrapped up and absorbed in our own lives and the families we create, that we don’t stop to think about what our parent is going through.

They spend the majority of their young adult lives caring for us and worrying about our happiness, safety, and health. Then one day, we grow up and move out, and our parent is left wondering what their purpose in life is now — especially if they are thinking about retiring or they don’t work.

As they age, a decrease in mobility or medical concerns makes it challenging or impossible to participate in activities they used to enjoy. The impact this has on their overall mood and mental health can be devastating without support and guidance from loved ones and medical professionals.

The best way to make sure you’re empathizing with your aging parent is to think about what your life will be like when you’re their age and how you might feel when you face the same type of challenges and situations your parent faces right now.

Research any medical conditions they have to get a better understanding of the symptoms and treatment options and speak to an Aging Life Care Manager for advice when you’re ready to get help customizing a care plan to meet their needs.

4. Focus on Solutions and Compromise

Focus on finding a solution to problems that arise and be willing to compromise with your parent. You should be respectful of their feelings and make sure you’re not being dismissive or trying to force them into doing something they don’t want to do because it is expedient or simply to ease your mind.

It’s easy to get caught up in our caregiver role when we see our parent struggle with daily tasks or when they’re unable to get up and move around as much anymore. Our desire to take care of them often overrides our ability to make decisions about our parent’s care rationally and respectfully.  

Demonstrating the active listening techniques mentioned above and practicing empathy can help you to see the situation from your parent’s perspective so you can handle it more effectively without stepping on their toes or being too “controlling.”

Compromises should result in doing what’s best for your parent regarding their safety and physical and mental health while still respecting their wishes. For example, an elderly parent with a recent dementia diagnosis may want to keep driving, but their children want her to stop.

In this situation, if the parent isn’t displaying any symptoms that would impair her driving and cause harm to come to herself or others on the road, she shouldn’t be forced to stop driving—no matter how worried her children are about the “what ifs.” 

The freedom to drive is one of the most difficult things to have to give up. It forces your parent to rely on others to take them wherever they need to go. This can be demeaning and cause your parent to leave their house less—missing doctor appointments or social outings with family and friends.

Have the courage to be honest with your parents about your feelings. This shows you respect the values they have taught you in life while you’re addressing the concerns that you have. Your approach should be direct but not accusatory or judging. By exploring answers and solutions together, you are likely to get better outcomes.

5. Involve Other Family Members When Necessary

When your parent refuses to talk to you and isn’t being reasonable, consider involving another family member to meditate and talk with your parent.

Your parent might find it difficult to talk to you about the problems they are facing. They might be feeling embarrassed, or they don’t want to appear “weak” or “vulnerable” in front of you. 

They are used to being the wise one in the relationship and the one you came to for advice when you were having problems or in trouble, so it feels unnatural for your relationship to be flipped around in reverse.

Opening up to you about struggling to shower or having difficulty keeping up the housework might be too hard for them. Respect your parent’s right to refuse to talk to you about topics that make them uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for your parent is to encourage them to talk to someone else if they don’t feel comfortable discussing certain topics with you.

Suggest family members you know your parent is close to or medical professionals, such as a therapist or Aging Life Care Manager, if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you.

Is your parent combative and refuses to talk anytime you bring up topics concerning their health or safety? If so, it might be time to consider involving another family member or consulting with an Aging Life Care Manager for help.

6. Get Help From an Aging Life Care Manager

An Aging Life Care Manager has received specialized training on how to care for people during the unique situations they face as they age, and their expertise can be invaluable.

Aging Life Care Managers do much more than mediate difficult conversations and situations between family members and loved ones. An Aging Life Care Manager can help you, and your parent determine what level of care they need and develop a customized care plan.

“Many times during the last three years, my sister and I have said to each other, “What would we do without Jennifer Tyner?” The answer is always the same. We would be lost without her.

My sister and I no longer live in Moore County. We needed to find a person we could rely on and trust to help us take care of our widowed mother. Jennifer has been there every step of the way with the three of us. She possesses good instincts, is warm, and very dependable.

Our mother was still at home during Jennifer’s first year with us. We depended on her for everything from filling her weekly medicine boxes to making sure groceries were in the house. 

Jennifer carefully chose caregivers who matched our mother’s personality. Daily notes left by caregivers let us know how our mom’s day had gone and what housekeeping/activities had occurred. She continues to make appointments with doctors and acts on our behalf at each one. She promptly calls and updates us after the appointments.

Two years ago, our mother had to leave her home. Jennifer gave us valuable information and guidance on what to look for in an assisted living community. We always value her opinion. She continues to see our mom at least once a week and more when the need arises. 

On more than one occasion, if Jennifer could not go immediately to the emergency room, she arranged for someone to go and be with our mom until we arrived. She consistently stays in contact with us and addresses any of our concerns or questions. She communicates with our assisted living community as needed. 

Jennifer also helped us navigate through the mental health systems at Duke and UNC. These are just a few of the things she has done for us over the last three years. We feel very fortunate to have found Jennifer and Aging Outreach Services. 

We can’t imagine having traveled this road without Jennifer’s help and guidance. We think of her as a member of our family. She has given my sister and me peace of mind. More importantly, Jennifer has provided our mom with a reassuring and trusting presence.”

- Jean Rieger and Susan Auman, Clients of Aging Outreach Services

As you can see from Jean and Susan’s experience with their mother, an Aging Life Care Manager can be the lifeline you didn’t even know you needed.

Summary: 6 Tips for Talking with Aging Parent About Physical and Mental Decline

Talking to your parent about the challenges they face as they age isn’t easy. You must consider their feelings and have respect for their wishes and opinions. To help you navigate these difficult situations more effectively, we have put together the following six tips for talking with aging parent you can try today:

  1. Learn to Spot These Common Red Flags:
    An overgrown yard, a cluttered or messy house, or signs your parent may be not practicing self-care such as not bathing, eating healthy, or keeping their doctor appointments. These things can all be indications that your parent is struggling and needs assistance. Failure to spot these signs and get your parent the help they need quickly can be detrimental to their health and safety.
  2. Practice Active Listening Techniques:
    Maintain eye contact, nod and respond when appropriate to show you’re listening, paraphrase what they say, and repeat it back to them for clarification and to show you understand what they are saying.
  3. Empathize With Your Parent and Be Patient:
    Consider how you would feel to be the same age as your parent, having to face all the challenges they are faced with now. Be patient with your parent, and take the time to really listen to what they have to say.
  4. Focus on Solutions and Compromises:
    Don’t spend time arguing over things that aren’t directly related to a solution for the issue at hand. Be willing to compromise so you can respect your parent’s opinions and wishes while you make decisions to ensure their continued safety and good health.
  5. Involve Other Family Members When Necessary:
    When your parent is uncomfortable talking to you about their health or safety, you need to see that they have someone they can comfortably talk to, such as another family member.
  6. Get Help from an Aging Life Care Manager:
    If your parent doesn’t have a family member or friend they can confide in, you should consider hiring an Aging Life Care Manager or a medical professional to help. An Aging Life Care Manager can act as a mediator for you and your parent, as well as create a customized care plan to ensure they are receiving the assistance they really need.

Are You Ready to Talk to an Aging Life Care Manager?

You are worried about your aging parent’s health and safety, but they get defensive when you bring it up or may even leave the room and refuse to talk.

You have noticed some of the warning signs that they are struggling to care for themselves and maintain their home, and you believe it’s time for them to hire help or consider downsizing, so what are you supposed to do?

We train our Aging Life Care Managers to help you navigate the difficult situations you and your parent are going to experience as they age. We’ll assess and evaluate your parent’s unique situation and customize a care plan that recommends the help they need.

Request your free consultation with one of our experienced Aging Life Care Managers now, so you can get the help your aging parent needs today.

Request a Consultation

Life over 50 is complicated. From illnesses to general aging-related difficulties, there's a lot to learn and a lot to cope with. We understand and we're here to help answer questions and provide guidance on your options.

Insert Call to Action