As I have said in an earlier post, when a family reports that they cannot discuss a parent’s living situation because he or she closes off conversation, I suggest to them that they have gotten stuck in a conversational stand-off. This is understandable when you stop to think what most of us do when preparing for what we expect to be a difficult and uncomfortable conversation. See if any of this sounds familiar.
What do you tend to do when you are preparing to broach the subject of moving with your parents? When we prepare for difficult conversations, we tend to play out the conversation in our head in advance. We prepare our arguments and our best come backs, because we know we are right, right? And then once we start the actual conversation, we feel compelled to say everything we rehearsed regardless of the other person’s responses. We stop listening; we are more intent on what we are saying. Most of us who are parents may recall at least one discussion with our pre-teenager that unfolded along these lines. This is common to many relationships we have to manage in life.
Your parent is most likely engaged in the same preparation for the conversation as you are, running through various scenarios that have been created before. It does not take long for a parent to recognize the signals that you are about to bring up their living situation. Should it be a surprise that they, too, have rehearsed their lines and deliver them dependably?
If you have had several conversations that have generally gone along the same predictable path, you may have started a list of phrases in your head that you think are flash points or language that shuts things down. Avoiding highly charged language is advisable but more importantly, consider how much time you have spent listening. Only by changing mindsets can we get beyond the impasse.
In wanting to discuss a parent’s living situation, adult children are acting out of love and concern. Most feel sympathetic that their parents are undergoing a transition in life that can be emotional and challenging. It is important for adult children to remember that they too may be experiencing a changing of roles that can be difficult to manage. It is possible to feel as though you are switching back and forth between being the child and being the parent of your parent, all in the course of a few minutes.
I spend a lot of time with families in their homes, helping guide conversations. Part of the assistance I can impart is to help adult children sort out their own feelings about their parent’s situation. Take Jane for instance. She lives in Florida, but her mother lives in Milwaukee, in the home that Jane grew up in. Jane visits as often as she can, but with the distance and her full time job, she doesn’t get back home nearly as often as she’d like. Her mother Julia is in her mid 80’s, has had some recent health setbacks, and as a result doesn’t get out of her home very often.
Jane had seen a change in her mother She had less energy, was less social, and though still a lovely person, there was a little less joy in her eyes. But every time Jane talked about a move, her mother changed the subject or got quiet. After many conversation stops and starts on the subject of moving, Jane was exasperated. She’d always been the good child. She loved her mother dearly. They had always been very close. But every time Jane had to leave to go back to Florida, along with packing her suitcase she’d pack her guilt about not being there for mom. Frankly the guilt weighed a lot more than her personal belongings, and she was wearing out from that burden.
It was her turn to take the lead in this relationship. It was her turn to do for her mother what her mother had done for her for so many years. So I told her I felt she had three options. She could make the decision for her mother and force her to move, thus returning home knowing that mom was likely mad at her, temporarily, but know that she was safe and in a better place. Or she could return to Florida and decide that she could no longer accept the guilt, she had done all she could, and she had a right to her own life the same as her mother did. But could she honestly do that?
In the end, with a little guidance, Jane found the strength to pursue a third course and have a very honest yet honoring conversation with her mother. She not only talked about why her mother should move, but how she felt every time she returned to Florida, and how much the worrying was impacting her personal life. That conversation was not one of transferring guilt, but rather one of honestly sharing her love, her caring, and helping her mother to see the situation through different eyes. It was the same exercise her mother had led Jane through many times in her younger years.
Throughout life we are constantly changing roles, some we welcome, others we don’t. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from the many families I’ve interacted with is, if we talk less and listen more, if we wear our roles with dignity and caring, the result is usually one of more common understanding and stronger relationships.
Our family relationships have been built on a foundation of both joyous and troubling times. I have come to believe that the most difficult part of aging, of this life transition period, is having honest yet honoring conversations. So in my post next week I will share some of the wisdom I’ve gained from families on how to build the bridge to a better life for everyone through a loving yet productive conversation.