Communicate Effectively with Aging Parents

Finding a way to communicate with an elderly parent about sensitive issues often requires an effective strategy.

Positive communication among family members is important to create a loving and respectful relationship. Periodically, every family experiences a situation where one member has an angry outburst or gives another member the silent treatment. Usually, these issues are resolved after everyone calms down.

Having a calm conversation with your elderly parents, however, can be challenging when you have become the caregiver. If you’ve noticed your parent having memory problems or other signs of aging, serious discussions about their health or legal matters may be in order. You might be afraid to broach these subjects for fear of hurting your parent’s feelings or in anticipation they will refuse to discuss the issue.

You may have noticed that conversations with your parent have become more difficult and filled with anger and resentment on both sides. Even the most mundane task can become a source of complaint. A simple trip to the grocery store can feel like negotiating a peace treaty.

Difficult Conversations with Aging Parents is Common

Recognize that you’re not alone. Family communication is complex under normal circumstances but becomes even more complicated with elderly parents who may be experiencing normal signs of aging such as memory loss and hearing problems. If they’re dealing with dementia, talking to them brings an additional set of difficulties such as mood swings and other personality changes. (Robinson, White, Houchins 2006)  

Your parents have a much greater need to communicate effectively to protect their wishes in the event they become incapacitated, but many older people resist these discussions for fear of losing influence over their own lives.

To have much-needed conversations, you’ll have to develop a new way of communicating with your parents that avoids the pitfalls. Communication is composed of the language you use as well as your facial expressions, body language, and eye contact.

When speaking with your parent, find a time when they aren’t stressed. You might think the holidays are a good time to have a financial or health conversation, but these times can be unsettling because they’re not in your parent’s normal routine. Instead, wait until after the holiday. Talk to them in a calm voice and don’t talk down to them. Respect the fact they’re an adult and treat them that way.

If your parent is having vision or hearing problems, they may miss or misinterpret the verbal or non-verbal cues you’re providing, causing them to get angry, embarrassed, or defensive.

Signs of Deteriorating Communication

Look for warning signs such as:

  • Impatience
  • Sarcasm
  • Withdrawal
  • Increased complaints

Don't expect to get all the information you need to make decisions in one discussion. It’s best to schedule several sessions to ensure your parent stays alert and engaged. You may need to warm up to a particular subject especially those centered on a health advance directive or legal power of attorney. Most elderly parents are afraid of becoming a burden to their family members or losing control of their lives. They can react to these conversations with anger and resentment, not at you but at the situation.

Don’t shy away from having these discussions and don’t fall into the trap of being secretly relieved if your parent doesn’t want to talk. It’s important to have your parent decide while they are still competent what they want for advance directives or legal powers of attorney. To set up a legally binding power of attorney or health advance directive, your parent must be mentally capable of understanding the nature and effect of the document. With a power of attorney, your parent will appoint someone else to act for them under certain circumstances. They will decide the range of powers such as the ability to access bank accounts, sell stocks, or sign income tax returns.

You won’t be able to initiate a power of attorney after your parent becomes mentally incapacitated. If Mom or Dad doesn’t set up the power of attorney before they become mentally impaired, a court will have to appoint a guardian or conservator, a lengthy and expensive process.

To make the conversation easier on your parents, emphasize they will still be in control of their health and legal situation as long as they’re capable. The advance directive and legal power of attorney only take effect if they become incapacitated.

Above all, stay calm during any discussions with your elderly parents. Don’t take negative reactions personally. Try to understand their point of view and remind them that, even though these discussions may be uncomfortable, the issues need to be addressed.

  • Thomas Robinson, George L. White, John C. Houchins 2006. Improving Communication with Older Patients: Tips from the Literature Fam Pract Manag. 2006 Sep; 13(8):73-78. Retrieved from 
  • ( n.d.)Financial Power of Attorney Retrieved from
  • (Lynette Khalfani-Cox, AARP n.d.) 5 Tips for Discussing Money Matters with Family Retrieved from
  • (David Allen, Md. 2012) How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction Retrieved from
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