As our parents age, many of us find ourselves wanting to connect more. Often, it’s the growing awareness that we won’t always have them in our lives. Sometimes, it’s the desire to preserve fond memories or to improve your relationship. Whatever our motivations, getting started can sometimes feel awkward – especially if it marks a new direction in the relationship. After decades of parent-driven conversations, we might need to become the conversation starters.
So, where do we begin? It all depends on the type of conversation. If the goal is to simply break the silence in a conversation that’s gone stale, that’s very different than trying to discuss serious issues like health or finances. Here are some ideas for talking to your aging parents in both instances.
When You Just Want The Conversation to Flow
No matter how close the relationship, any conversation can develop awkward spots or silent patches. These family conversation starters should help lighten things up a bit.
Make a Joke
Laughter really is the universal language. Use a joke you heard on TV or find one online. The source doesn’t matter, but the delivery does. Try to frame it by saying, “I heard this joke and really wanted to share it with you.” The discussion that follows may be funnier than the joke itself.
Ask About the Past Rather Than the Present
It’s easy to get bogged down by asking common ice-breakers. Yes, asking about their day is important, but asking about their life is more interesting and engaging. “What did you want to be when you were growing up?” or “Why did you decide to study so-and-so in college?” Pick any family member or major world event and ask for their memories.
You can then steer the conversation by simply asking more questions and just letting mom or dad respond as long as they like. Often, one story will lead to another – and open up new avenues of conversation and connection.
You Can Still Ask About the Present
There’s a difference between asking about lunch and asking about current events. Bring up a new movie and ask for their list of favorites. Bring up a new technology and ask about some of the biggest changes they’ve seen since they were young. Remember, the “now” is the conversation starter, the “then” creates the opportunity to connect.
Remember To Use Open Questions
Have you ever struggled with one-word answers? Does the conversation shut down after a series of yes or no’s? The questions might be the issue. Ask open questions that start with “What” or “Why” to get a conversation started. Questions that start with “Did you” and “When” are too easy to answer with one word.
When You Want to Talk About More Serious Issues
As our parents age, most of us find ourselves faced with serious topics to address. Whether it’s an illness, financial matters, or a necessary move, these can be difficult matters to start talking about. For these kinds of conversations, you may need a little more up-front planning.
Make a Plan
Start by writing down a list of topics – just to get your own thoughts organized. Consider “practicing” by starting the conversation with a trusted friend who can give you some helpful feedback. When you’re ready to start the actual conversation with mom or dad, try to put yourself in their shoes and imagine if it were your adult child talking to you. Be respectful, patient, and above all, listen, listen, listen.
Make It About Them
A common decision that many families face is whether parents should move into senior living. This is a topic that can bring up a lot of emotion for all involved, and it needs careful handling. It is best to start with a casual conversation, over dinner or lunch, and Diane K., vice president of sales and market development for The Goodman Group suggests making it all about them.
“It is important to go where your parents are in the process,” she says. “Focus on the positive benefits to them, not you. If they are having an issue, talk about the benefit of moving that might solve the issue…rather than discussing the issue itself.
Here are some possible family conversation starters:
- “Have you ever thought about moving to a smaller place that is easier to take care of?”
- “Would you like to live at a place where you don’t have to cook or clean anymore?”
- “If you don’t want to hire a nurse to come into your house, then maybe you and I can look at new places for you to live, where help is right down the hall.”
Diane also suggests offering to help as much as possible. For example, offer to do the research, set up a tour, and drive them to the community for a visit.
The Importance of Staying Connected
Remember, the more you stay connected with your parents, the easier it will be for all of you to talk about things as they come up. There may be decisions about finances or healthcare that you’ll need to make together. These will all be easier if you’ve kept up good communication about less serious topics. But beyond “taking care of business,” staying in touch with aging parents is the groundwork for closer relationships. These are years that will pass quickly and that you won’t have a chance to do over. So it’s well worth the effort to keep communication open and honest – you’ll be giving a lasting gift to the entire family.