We are free-wheeling and in control of our lives. We want to keep moving the ball down the field. We like to solve a problem and then move on to the next.
But our command and control attitude toward decision-making often comes into conflict with our loved one’s way of looking at things. We cajole, we coax, we coerce, but the more we press, the greater the resistance.
Consider some of the typical issues we think of as critical to our loved one’s safety and well-being:
- Mom can’t live on her own anymore but she refuses to move to assisted living.
- Dad won’t give up the car keys even though his vision is very bad.
- Uncle Fred refuses to have that prostate test his doctor recommended.
- Aunt Mary changes the subject every time I urge her to finalize her estate planning documents.
How to break down resistance?
So how do we break the logjam? How do we get our uncooperative loved ones to be reasonable? The first step is to recognize that they may have a different agenda than ours, as well as a different timeline.
In his book, How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders, author David Solie poses the question, “What are the developmental tasks associated with getting old, and how can knowledge of them enhance our ability to communicate with this age group?”
Developmental tasks? Aren’t older adults declining and diminishing at this stage, and not continuing to develop? Isn’t that why they forget they’ve told us the same stories again and again, even as we roll our eyes and check our watches to signal our impatience?
Isn’t their resistance to our well-conceived ideas a sign that their judgment has gone out the window?
Maybe not. Solie identifies two main tasks of older adults:
- To maintain control
- To discover their legacy
By legacy, he means much than the material wealth they may leave behind. It’s the entire context of their life, their values, and how the want to be remembered.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from Solie’s book that illustrate how older adults might be helped along in dealing with their issues, instead of locking horns with the people in their lives that think they know better.
The Wisdom of Ceding Control
An elderly widow was still living in the family home that was in a state of disrepair. She could no longer safely climb the stairs, but there was only one bathroom, and it was upstairs. Money wasn’t the issue – she had it to spare. Her son and daughter tried everything but a crowbar to pry her loose and move her to an assisted living facility, but she refused.
Finally, they met with a counselor to get some advice. The counselor wisely told them to stop fighting and start facilitating. So they got quotes for all the things in the house that needed to be repaired or modified. The mother surprised them by saying NO. The house wasn’t worth it. She made the decision to move to an assisted living facility herself.
The Right Legacy
A wealthy, retired businessman met with his estate planning attorneys to discuss their plan to protect the estate from taxes so he’d have more to leave to his ne’er do well son. The man walked out of the room in a huff. Clearly, he wanted a different kind of legacy. But what?
One of his advisors learned from the man’s wife that he had started out poor, attended college during the Depression, and couldn’t pay his tuition. The college forgave his debt. That was the key to the legacy the man was searching for. He met with the college president and donated funds anonymously for a scholarship program as well as a new expanded wing for the school of engineering.
There’s a right and a wrong way to approach our elderly loved ones. The right approach can make all the difference. Consider these examples from the book of how we can close or open the dialogue with our choice words:
To someone who resists using a walker:
How NOT to Say It
“Yes, it’s hard to rely on a walker, but you may fall if you don’t use it and then you might need a wheelchair instead.”
How to Say It
“I understand how devastating this loss of mobility is. Talk to me about ways you are limited in your daily activities. I want to help you figure out how to cope.”
We can only imagine what it will be like when we are old. When we get there, we would want to be respected, and have our autonomy supported. We can’t walk a mile in our loved one’s shoes, but if we adopt a different attitude, we can transform the relationship, assist them in the transition to the end of life, and help them discover their legacy.