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Sensitive Conversations

Many of us have concerns about our parents' health and well-being, or about their living arrangements. Our concern can lead to anxiety and frustration and we can be tempted to offer advice about "solutions" that seem obvious to us.

But our parents won't welcome unsolicited advice any more than we did when they offered it to us.

Successful conversations depend on two things: the kind of relationship you have with your parents and the nature of the conversation. If you have always been the "wonderful daughter", you might be able to influence your parents. But if you have had a history of arguments over the years, this pattern will likely continue if you approach your conversation in the usual way. 

Many topics are also touchy: For example, many older adults are uncomfortable or even refuse to talk about money. Also, they might find it easier to talk about physical health than emotional well-being. 

Is there a sensitive conversation in your future? Consider these approaches:

  • Put aside your own agenda. First try to understand your parents' needs, their fears, and their hopes.
  • Ask your parents for their thoughts first, before presenting your concerns and suggestions
  • Write them a note. This way, your parents will not feel broadsided when you unexpectedly bring up the topic.
  • If you can't broach a sensitive subject, get help from a trusted friend, relative, or other objective third party (e.g., a medical professional, family coach or counsellor).
  • Keep your worry and feelings of responsibility in perspective. Parents can and may refuse even the best advice

Our book, "Your Aging Parents", offers these additional listening and communication tips for more effective family discussions.

  • Listen actively to what others are saying - give them feedback about their opinions by asking them to validate your understanding of their meaning. Ensure also that others comprehend what you say.
  • Suspend your own judgments when listening.
  • Pay attention not only to what is said, but also to how it is said and what is not stated.
  • Watch body language (facial expressions, posture, tone, gestures) that might add to the meaning of the message or contradict what a family member actually says.
  • Show that you are paying attention - maintain eye contact, nod, respond.
  • Remove barriers to listening - distractions, preoccupation, and self-talk.
  • Ask open ended questions - these are questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no". Begin your question with "how" or what."

    (Source: Your Aging Parents, First Edition)

Good communication skills are crucial for sensitive conversations. They help create effective outcomes for sensitive conversations and positive relationships between the generations.

Vol. 3 , No. 15
� ElderWise Inc. 2007-2010.

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Originally published by ElderWise Publishing, a division of ElderWise Inc. We provide clear, concise and practical direction to Canadians with aging parents. Visit us at and subscribe to our FREE e-newsletter


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