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Family Caregiver Blog

How to Talk to Aging
Parents About Anything
(Hint: It’s about respect)

By Sally Abrahms

Let’s turn the tables. Instead of you caring for your parent or in-law, imagine that they are caring for you. How would you feel? Exactly.

Being able to drive keeps you independent and in charge. But, what if your parent told you it wasn’t safe anymore and you had to depend on them or others if you want to go out? What if they had to be in the room with you when you went to the doctor’s?

Or, what if you needed someone else to do really personal things for you, or they told you that you needed to have help, or had to move out of your cherished home? How about not remembering where you were or what was happening around you? What would it be like if your body or mind didn’t work the way they used to?

You get the point. You’d probably feel at least a few emotions: anger, resentment, embarrassment, confusion, fear or sadness. Might you feel diminished, demeaned or less than? It is incredibly difficult to be in your parents’ shoes.

To simulate what it’s like to be old with impairments (literally in your parents’ shoes), there are special suits you can don. MIT’s AgeLab has AGNES (as in Age Gain Now Empathy System) and companies can purchase GERT (Gerontologic Test Suit), another version with a similar aim from a German manufacturer. Their mission: for others to gain understanding and empathy about the aging process.

If you were to flip the roles, how would you like your parents or in-laws to treat you? Of course, the answer would be with respect, love, caring, and kindness.

You’d also want it to be as one adult talking to another adult—not as an adult talking to a small child. That’s obvious, you say. But many people, not realizing it, communicate that way (i.e. “how are we doing today?” rather than “how are you doing today?”), and it can come off as condescending or infantilizing. Talking down to older adults is so prevalent that aging experts have coined a word for it called “elderspeak.”

Note: It’s not effective! Here are four examples of elderspeak:

  1. You direct conversations about the older person to someone else and ignore the one it involves (doctors, nursing staff, shop clerks, waiters are often guilty of this)
  2. You talk to them in a sing-song or exaggerated tone
  3. Even if they have no hearing issues, you address them loudly
  4. You talk extremely s-l-o-w-l-y like they don’t or won’t understand

An aside: even though I am an expert on aging and believe I am a sensitive caregiver, my daughter once told me that I was talking to my 90+ year-old college professor mother in a patronizing way. I had thought I was being sweet and kind. On reflection, my daughter was right. My other point: elderspeak is so common you may not realize you are doing it.

At the University of Kansas Medical Center, researchers found that when nursing home staff used baby talk with residents with moderate Alzheimer’s, they became resistant to care and agitated.

It may sound clichéd and simplistic, but it really is this simple: When interacting with your parents, or any senior, the Golden Rule rules.