Have you wondered how to talk to your parents now that they’re getting older and may need to consider some serious changes? It’s hard to have that first “conversation,” but it’s necessary. Love’s Way: Living Peacefully with Your Family as Your Parents Age, written by two professional family mediators, is the perfect place to start. In this book, you’ll learn how to address family issues and find healing for any rifts, how to navigate through all the necessary legal documents, how to speak the truth in love to parents, siblings, and even your own children, and much more.
In Love’s Way, Carolyn Miller Parr (a retired judge) and Sig Cohen (a retired US Foreign Service officer) provide all the information you need to get started in planning for the future—not just for your aging parents, but for yourself and your family as well. Through engaging storytelling—such as the following—the authors portray multiple examples of problems in families and also what to do about them. After their years of combined experience, there’s not much that Carolyn and Sig haven’t seen or know how to resolve! Here is an excerpt from chapter 1, written by Sig.
“Not Your Grandma’s Old”
by Sig Cohen
“I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before
us on a road by which we, too, may have to travel, and
I think we do well to learn from them what it is like.”
Socrates in Plato’s The Republic
“I did it to make him notice me.”
Geneva, an eighty-something woman, was embroiled in a protracted and ugly lawsuit with her adult son, James. Rather than rule on the case, the judge ordered them to mediation, hoping she and her son would avoid an emotionally debilitating and costly legal battle.
As mediator in the case, Carolyn was surprised by Geneva’s candor. Geneva explained that, without warning, she closed her joint bank account with her only son while he and his family were on vacation. James discovered this when he tried to pay taxes on his and his mother’s jointly owned beach house, as previously agreed. When James called his mother to ask what was up, she snapped “Talk to my lawyer!” and hung up.
Things swiftly careened downhill. Geneva’s lawyer persuaded her to sue James to get his name off the deed. James counterclaimed for half the rent money, which until then both parties had regarded solely as his mother’s. Now they glared at each other across the mediation table. James was hurt and puzzled by his mother’s behavior. He had never misused their bank account and couldn’t imagine why she had closed it.
But here’s the backstory. When Geneva was sick and hospitalized, she wanted James to handle her finances. When she recovered, she began to resent her loss of control. Rent checks in both names now came to James (who duly deposited them in their joint account). Bank statements also came to James. Then, when Geneva called the property manager to question a plumber’s bill, she was told, “I deal with your son. Ask him.” By closing the bank account, Geneva was making a plea—one she couldn’t bring herself to voice directly: “Look at me, Son! Listen to me! I can still make decisions. I can still think. I’m not helpless. I’m not invisible!”
In the mediation session, mother and son finally listened to each other, and they agreed to leave the title in joint names and set up an escrow account for the rent money. That solved the legal problem. Although mending feelings would take longer, both wanted to reconcile. Geneva admitted she shouldn’t have closed the account without talking to James. James saw that he’d been insensitive to his mother’s need for autonomy. They agreed to have dinner together once a week and to share honestly whatever was on their minds—even if it required a tough conversation.
Geneva and James’s story is not unique. As our parents age, they not only shrink physically but also may fade from our awareness. When they retire, rarely does anyone from their old job call to ask their advice. If they become chronically ill or lack sufficient energy to venture out, they can easily become isolated and lonely. Family and friends don’t mean to abandon them; but until there’s a crisis, a homebound senior often vanishes from their thoughts. Clerks ignore them. Servers ask their companion what the senior wants to eat. Their footprint on the world becomes smaller, and they can feel as if they’re disappearing.
“I’m Not Your Grandma’s Old”
I was having coffee with my friend Sadia when our conversation turned to aging and how to address changes in our children’s perceptions about older people. Sadia told me that when her son recently became “overly concerned” about her well-being, she replied, “I’m not your Grandma’s old.”
“Your grandmother’s old?” I wondered. What on earth did she mean? Sadia explained that in the twenty-first century, our lives are different from how our parents’ were when they were our age. Most of us are healthier, consume a better diet, smoke less, and keep up with current events. Many of us work at least part time after retiring from our first job. We may decide to start a new business, take up writing or art, or become involved with a nonprofit organization. Subjected as we are to information that is ubiquitous because of the Internet, we can’t help but stay abreast of new medical advances and how to minimize if not avoid chronic illnesses. As a result, we live longer.
Sadia noted that most of us are better able to cope with stress, our minds are more alive, and we look for new ways to stay engaged in our community. The lifestyles and well-being of today’s seniors mean that they are more active and able to live independently longer than our parents when they were in their seventies and eighties.
Indeed, as children grow up and their parents age, family dynamics are bound to change. But not always for the better. When younger people think of their parents, many are stuck with the image of their grandparents—but that may not be where your own parents are today. . . .
Talking in an Inexorably Shrinking World
While adults in their seventies ordinarily can manage very well, what’s left for older adults in their eighties, nineties, and beyond? One major health event can propel them from “young old age” to “old old age.” At that point, loss of autonomy is all around. Friends have died. They can’t drive at night, or maybe not at all. Mobility may be hampered by hip replacement surgery, a history of falling, dementia, or other physical and psychological impairments. Other factors include loneliness and isolation or a changing (demographically, racially, economically) neighborhood. Unfamiliarity with technological changes can also overwhelm them.
As we have seen, many older adults feel they must clutch onto whatever remnants of their independence remain intact. No wonder the aging process is so frightening, both to older parents and the children who love them. What can we do to ease an older adult’s entry into “old old age”?
- Listen to comprehend, not to argue.
- Try to build confidence, not anxiety.
- Understand that these conversations are a process, not a one-shot event. They may take multiple sessions over days, if not weeks.
- Focus on the issue, not the individual. If you’re concerned about your parents’ safety, focus on that and not their attitude, perceived intractability, or resistance.
- If the conversation becomes too emotional, stop. Take a break. Change the subject. Don’t let the discussion get out of hand.
- Make sure you understand what you want to discuss. If it’s about moving to an assisted living residence, have you checked out its location, cost, amenities, and so on? If it’s about Mom no longer driving, do you know your state’s laws regarding driver’s licenses for older adults? Available public transportation?
- As long as they remain competent, respect your parents’ right to control their own destiny, even if you disagree with their decision.
While conversations between adult kids and their parents are crucial, they may be inhibited by fear. Keep listening. It’s the most powerful resource we have to breach the walls of resistance and silence. Together, families can create a new story—one guided by love and understanding. The path toward a happy ending begins with trying to walk together, even for a short time, in another’s shoes.
Carolyn Miller Parr is a retired judge, mediator, writer, and public speaker. She graduated from Stetson University (BA), Vanderbilt (MA English), and Georgetown Law (JD). Since 2002, Judge Parr has practiced peacemaking through her mediation practice Beyond Dispute and Tough Conversations with Sig Cohen.
Sig Cohen is a retired Foreign Service officer, fundraiser, and community organizer, and now serves as a mediator. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (BS) and the University of Chicago (MA in International Relations).
For more information about Love’s Way, visit our website.