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Talking with Your Elderly Parents

Updated on June 21, 2010

Improve Your Relationship

My mother is 89 years old and has been living alone since my father passed away 7 years ago. She is very independent - no assisted living facility for her - but isolated because she can't get out on her own. Consequently, when I visit her she wants to talk - a lot.

Like most people her age her conversation runs to reminiscing, blow-by-blow descriptions of her favorite television program, and recitals of her aliments. It often tests the limits of patience and I admit I am tempted to just tune her out, something she is quite sensitive to. Instead, I practice these techniques to keep her engaged in lively conversation. They improve our relationship and keep my brains from turning to mush.

Patience

Your parent patiently listened to your baby talk, your childish nonsense, your adolescent whining, and your young adult money woes. Keep that in mind when you hear about Great Aunt Stella's roller coaster ride for the thousandth time. Set a time limit, say 5 to 10 minutes, during which you resolve to give her your undivided attention. Then you can move to Step 2.

Gently Change the Subject

Remember your parent doesn't want to be tedious, he just wants someone to talk to. Most any subject will do. After your 10 minutes of polite attention are up, start listening for an opening. If your dad mentions how he won first prize at the county fair 50 years ago (as he's mentioned every week for the past 10 months), enthusiastically interrupt and ask if he's seen the peaches at the local farmer's market. Then subtly shift the conversation toward the new topic and branch out from there.  At least you will hear some different stories!

Don't Contradict or Correct

Unless your mom is making statements that could affect her health or safety ("The doctor told me to take 5 of these tablets every 2 hours"), there is no need to correct or question every minor comment. It doesn't matter that Cousin Jean, not Aunt Edie, gave her the porcelain bowl in the hallway. Correcting her only slows the conversation or, worse, causes her to lose her train of thought and start over.

Avoid Controversy

Avoid highly controversial subjects, like politics. These tend to turn into negative diatribes and, in my mother's case, opinions based on a confusion of the facts. Again, don't correct. Listen intently, validate the opinion with an innocuous statement that can be interpreted as agreement ("Wow. That is quite a law Congress passed"), and then steer the topic to something less incendiary ("Did you hear Congress has approved more money for the space shuttle program?") Keep an interested tone that suggests "I want to hear your opinion about this new topic".

Keep Engaged

Keep engaged in the conversation to keep it moving. Most people, even your elderly parent, just want the opportunity for human interaction. They want to talk with you, not at you. Try these suggestions - you can only improve your relationship with your parent and make his or her life more enjoyable.

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