Every day, we have prospective residents and their families who come to us trying to navigate through the challenging issues of aging. As we try and help these people through the process we often find that communication is at the root of the struggles.
When communication is done well, relationships grow and deepen and family members feel like they are in step with one another. When done ineffectively, there is the sense that our words trip each other up and in especially challenging communication struggles, relationships can be broken.
Why is that?
David Solie, an expert in geriatric psychology and inter-generational communication tells us in his book How to Say it to Seniors that one part of the problem is the disconnect between generations. Each generation is in their own developmental phase and if we communicate with one another assuming that the other is in the same phase, communication breaks down.
To understand this more fully, we can look to Erik Ericksons theory of lifespan development. Ericksons theory explains that there are a number of different developmental phases one must go through. We understand this clearly when we think of a child who has the need to gain independence yet also needs Mom. Often the two of these clash and this creates conflict, yet it is still important that the child moves through the phase in order to reach independence. We understand this phase because weve been through it ourselves, we have maybe raised children and have experienced the conflict, and we have countless resources and books that help us gain tools to navigate this phase.
The challenge with aging is we assume that growing older is just more of the same. Aging is seen as being an adult, just older. How could seniors possibly still be developing?
Once we understand that an aging person is also experiencing their own developmental agenda, communication styles can be adjusted to explore and honor this phase. A senior’s developmental tasks compel them to maintain control over their lives while simultaneously having the need to discover their legacy.
How can family communication change so an aging person maintains control and discovers their legacy? We adjust our words to help rather than hinder. For instance, Mom is having trouble maintaining the house and wants to stay in it. Her daughter wants her to consider moving. The daughter says, “Mom, I know you don’t want to sell the house, but you can’t take care of it anymore and I worry that you’ll fall.” A better way to address the topic would be for the daughter to say, “Mom, I sense you dont like the idea of selling the house. I won’t mention the subject again, but I’d like to hear your ideas about how you can maintain it and how you can handle the stairs.” This second way of addressing the concern allows Mom to be in control while the first way may lead to Mom struggling with her daughter to keep control. Likewise, when seniors are able to express their concerns about aging to their families, while also honoring their developmental season of reflecting on the impact they have in their communities and the wisdom they bring to their families, communication opens up for honest and productive discussion.
Having conversations that allow family members to feel heard and respected despite varying developmental stages leads to deepened relationships and a greater understanding of anothers perspective. Effective communication leads to family members in step with one another, balancing the need to reflect on life with the desire to look at whats next.