Influencer QA

How to Connect with an Aging Parent

Dear David,

My husband struggles with how to engage in conversation with his mother. Mom doesn’t get out much and spends a lot of time with what we consider negative news. When we are together, she shares her opinions as facts. Often sweeping generalizations, “Kids today don’t learn anything in school,” or, “No one . . . ” or, “All those people . . . “. He has tried to gently engage, “Interesting that you think that. What I’ve seen for my kids is they are working very hard and learning a lot in school.” She’ll say something like, “Well of course I don’t mean YOUR kids. But all the other ones who don’t have parents who care . . . ” If he disagrees with her, she acts personally attacked, and as if he doesn’t love her.

My husband has tried being silent and not engaging, but fears he is seen as agreeing and therefore contributing to stereotyping and prejudice in our society. He has tried to bring it up, “When you state your opinions so strongly, I don’t know how to share a different opinion without you feeling hurt that I disagree,” but without luck. Please help!

Signed,
Sidelined by Mom

Dear Sidelined,

What a sad question! Hurt feelings in families are especially painful. And yet, when you hear a loved one make an offensive comment, you don’t want your silence to endorse it. In Crucial Conversations we teach how to disagree in the moment without hurting feelings, but I want to draw on our book, Influencer, to take a longer-term view.

I think the fundamental problem to solve is that mom doesn’t get out much, but wants to contribute to your conversations. I don’t know her so I’m going to imagine she is a bit like my mother or my wife’s mother when they were in their 70’s and 80’s.

Your Data Stream Determines Your Mental Agenda.
As my mom entered her 70’s and 80’s, she retired from being a math professor, health problems kept her mostly indoors, she stopped driving, and she moved away from friends to be close to family. This meant that her world shrank into a fairly small bubble. Is this the same for your mom?

Imagine her small world. Where does she get her information? She probably watches a fair amount of television, mostly cable news with a sprinkling of a few favorite shows. Her friends are probably a lot like her, similar in age and TV viewing habits. As a result, her data stream is limited and repetitive. And it’s likely to be skewed towards the negative, because that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

Mom is Still Mom. A mom’s role in the family is a sacred one, and your mom should never give it up. A part of that role is to give advice, share opinions, and protect you from the world out there. I believe that is what she is doing when she makes her “sweeping generalizations.”

Conversations Stall Out. Does the following happen? You and your husband are with mom making conversation. You hit on a topic where she thinks she can contribute, because she heard about it on TV. But, when she speaks up, her comment strikes you as a negative opinion, not a fact. You either go silent or speak up to disagree. The conversation dies and mom feels hurt.

If this is what’s happening, then the question shouldn’t be, “What can I say in the moment?” but, “What can I do to broaden mom’s data stream and deepen our relationship?” Here are a few strategies that worked for my wife and me.

Include Her in Your Data Stream. My wife and I got some excellent advice from a friend. She told us, “When your mom gets into her 70’s, you need to call her every day.” We took that advice and it made a world of difference. It gave us personal topics to talk about, topics that were more important to us than whatever the latest news might be. Weekly calls don’t give mom enough context to contribute, but daily calls make her a part of your life.

We also began taking more photos. We’d send our mom two or three photos a day, just to let her know what we were up to. Then, when we talked at the end of the day, mom could comment on the photos and feel as if she were with us.

Think of ways to connect on a daily basis and to give her more details about your goings on. This will give you more positive and personal topics to discuss.

Create Common Experiences. My mom was a reader, so we started a book club with her—just me, my wife, and my mom. We quickly learned what she liked: John McPhee was an early favorite. As she grew older, we moved to shorter essays and stories. Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book, and Bern Heinrich’s, One Wild Bird at a Time, became our new favorites. Once again, our goal was to create common experiences and shared experiences that gave us more to discuss than the weather, current events, and politics.

My wife’s mom loved music, so we started watching TV music shows together. This was a bit awkward since we lived three states apart. But the three of us became fans of American Idol, The Voice, and Dancing With The Stars. My wife would call her mom just before the show began to awaken her and make sure her TV was tuned to the right channel. Then, we’d call during commercial breaks to get her opinions on the performances, judges, and competitors. Again, our goal was to have shared experiences that were more relevant and personal than the weather, current events, or politics.

A last piece of advice is to ask mom about herself. Moms have so much history and wisdom to share. Below are a few questions I’ve pulled off the Internet. My wife and I tried some of these with our moms. They can stimulate some rich conversations, but not all of them work with every mom and you may need some patience to get the conversation going.

• How did you meet Dad and how did you know he was “The One”?
• What’s one thing you wish you did differently before you got married or had kids?
• What question do you wish you could ask your mom?
• What’s the hardest thing about being a mom? What’s the best thing?
• What was your dream job when you were younger?
• How many jobs have you had in your life? What did you learn from them?
• Who was your favorite person to spend time with when you were a teenager? Why?
• What kind of car did you learn to drive in? Who taught you?

I hope these ideas help you find more common ground with your aging mother and create common shared experiences that can generate positive conversation. I believe you are seeking for that kind of rich relationship that will benefit you both and I hope you can find it.

Best of Luck,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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31 thoughts on “How to Connect with an Aging Parent”

  1. Having watched David Maxfield LIVE what he advises here, I know what he is saying “works.” In the last years with his mother he and his wife, Kathy Becker, were wonderfully intentional about creating the relationship and reality they would all cherish. It was a beautiful thing to see. And reading this has left me feeling pretty emotional in my hotel room far from home. Thank you, David.

  2. When my mom hit her 70’s and I saw her slowing down a bit, I changed my approach to gifts for her. Instead of “things”, I gave her “activities & time with me”. For example, a lunch a month, a Saturday Driver for any destination she wanted (which turned into a quilt show and fabric store adventure for her and a few of her friends), a vacation trip to AZ, etc. . Not only was my mom thrilled with these ideas, but her friends were all enthralled too, so it gave them ALL something else to talk about and be excited for!

  3. What profoundly kind way to treat your mom and a great answer! Another thing to consider it that mom may not get out much and interact with nice people instead of all the fearful ones that she is being feed from the news. Can you create opportunities for her to socialize? I’m a 56 year old with a visual disability that stops me from doing some things. Perhaps you mom is afraid to or can’t drive, or can’t drive at night. Are there book studies, club meetings, houses of worhsip she can attend? Would you be willing to take her there? One thing that I recommend divorcees do is volunteer at their churches’ nursery. There are babies there just waiting to be cuddled AND a little social interaction with the other people working the nursey and nice young parents as they come in and out. You can also drink coffee and meet new friends at coffe hour after churcn. And no you don’t have to be particularly religious to do this. (But don’t except anyone to just let you in and watch their babies or other kids either.)

    1. I agree. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “If you feel like you need help, go help someone.” Finding ways for older people to contribute is hugely important. Often, the obstacles that keep them from helping are little things like transportation.

    2. Also consider hiring a taxi or even a neighbor to driver her back and forth if you can’t. Because of my visual disability I avoid droving at night because its harder to see, but I drive my mom at night. i also taker hrr to the chinese place SHE prefers for lamb chops and have soup, so that we can go to my favorite italian place later. My mom is 83.5 and I vdrive 185 miles each way to visit every 4 day weekend that I have.

  4. I must say, this was an excellent answer, and it also shows what an excellent character you are, David Maxfield!

  5. Thank you. This has allowed me to think a bit differently regarding our interactions with our aging parents. I plan to share this with my siblings and spouse in the hope of creating a better life for our moms and ourselves.. a win- win for everyone.

  6. Greetings from India.
    So touching post and so factual…. My Grandparents lived aged 90s !! The way my mom and dad worked with them was along the similar lines! “Agree overall but push to see divergent view of mom and Dad!!” (Granddad 1900-1995, Grand Mom 1914-2005) Ofcourse, most of their time spent with dad ( As is culture in India)….. As my parents move in to their 70s History repeats I am beginning to get in to groove (I stay 400 Miles away in different state) this post kind of tuned me to align to issues that may come in my way!!

    Appreciated. I would go through the books as I take this journey.

    Karthik
    Bangalore, India.

  7. Thank you for this article. Although I have a great relationship with my Parents, this has given me new ways to continue engaging with them. As well as, make them feel even more loved.

  8. I LOVE these ideas and they make me a bit sad because I didn’t have them for the last stages of my parents’ lives. They would have made a difference, especially the questions that I am so curious about and can no longer get answers to.

  9. This was such a great article. It’s so easy to get into this rut, and you gave concrete suggestions for staying connected to beloved elders on a personal basis.

  10. This is a great way to build or rebuild relationships. another thing I suggest is to have her start writing his/her history. There are computer programs to use your voice to do this or even recording it and sending it to you to put into the computer if they are unable to put it into the computer themselves. What a legacy to leave your children and grandchildren. Focus their attention on what events and trials they have had in their life and what they learned from it. There is nothing so great as to know about the life someone lived as to learn to see them as a child of Heavenly Father and appreciate them for who they are. This will bring families together faster than anything I can imagine. I have loved revisiting the events of my childhood through my fathers writings.

    1. Great idea. My mom and dad both wrote their memoirs when they were in their 80’s, and they are treasured documents. My dad took a very interesting approach. His was a book of Anecdotes–none longer than half a page. This made it really easy for him to write, and–when you read it–you are getting the gold nuggets without any filler.

  11. Thank you for the wonderful reply and suggestions. You have shown how well to think positively than going into the swirls of negative feelings about our aging parents. I need to start practicing today!!!

  12. Great response to the question. My mom now lives with me and my husband. She’s 97 years old. She likes Christian TV, Judge Judy and the weather. She came to live with us 3 years ago from another state so she is no longer near her friends. My husband makes sure she calls at least 2 friends almost every day. This helps. Thank you for all your suggestions. We’ll try them as I share this article with my husband. Blessings.

  13. Great ideas and there are some more great ones in the comments. My parents are no longer around but I will keep this in mind to share with others. Maybe I’ll remember it when I’m older and will share it with my kids to use with me! 🙂

  14. what a great article; wish I had this info when my parents were alive, but will forward to my children for the grandparent that is still alive (and hopefully continue on thru my golden years)

  15. Great advice, great ideas. This means the adult child needs to get more involved with the aging parent. Tough to make the decision to do this in a busy life, but so important. I hope he and his wife take your advice!

  16. How absolutely wonderful to read this proactive relationship growing advice – not framed as fixing a problem – but as a way to continue to grow a relationship between Mother and children that are now all mature adults.

    Like someone else wrote, we could have used this advise: Mom, with arthritic limitations, gave up horses, stayed home to read and reread murder mysteries. She didn’t want to be seen with a walker, and after literally driving into the beauty parlor, driving was discouraged – so feeling loss of independence she declined to go places that Dad would be going anyway. She ultimately refused to take telephone calls from me, and I later learned she did the same to my sister. Biweekly visits seemed to be grudgingly accepted. Surely pain was a factor, but social self-deprivation probably enhanced her pain focus.

    In contrast, Dad became socially proactive in the latter of his 95 years. He attended church and led their cleanup crew that kept construction expenses down, and he became a volunteer docent at the local state park. Meanwhile he also maintained relationships with his retiree and motorcycle groups, and kept up his first-name connections with his sales persons advisors in the local stores – from the senior expert on hardware supplies to the young lady in the grocery store that could give shopping advice to this funny old man who never cooked any of it. And he called regularly just to chat with my sister and with me.

  17. Wonderful article and suggestions. Shared it already with my children and siblings so that they too can enjoy the positive suggestions with our parents/grandparents. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  18. You provide a very different perspective in your response to this situation. Your answer is refreshing and does not put blame on any party but explains what each side may be feeling. On the surface it may seem that the mother-in-law is irrational however, as you dig deeper you realize where that behavior is coming from. Great suggestions to help with the issue.

  19. Sure hope my controlling sons read this. My husband is dead, long live his memory. Now I can live my own life!

  20. I am a 79 1/2 year old male and have no children of my own. I live alone with two cats and retired from a full time job ten months ago. I was surprised at the description of the “seventy and eighty year olds”. I have just read. For one thing they appear senile and really not folks I would want to spend time with. I have my own life and have usually been by myself so I adjusted long ago I like being alone and recognized early on in my retirement that the loss of contact with people was a void I would need to fill. I
    am working on doing that and while I have strong opinions I don’t feel the need to unload them at the drop of a hat..,I am not a hermit nor am I perfect. I interact with a coterie of friends and others at lunches and such and have with some wryness realized my opinions are not sought after much anymore if they ever were. Life is tough and then you die!

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