Some conversations with your 82-year-old mother-in-law are a blast. She dishes on the latest gossip in her senior living facility (like how Ruthie G. didn’t save a seat for Ruthie B. on the bus to the symphony…*smirk*), and you get a kick out of how she instructs you to roast a turkey while seamlessly integrating stories about Great Aunt Sally from back in the day. But some conversations are…tougher. They’re the ones that might signal the beginning of a role reversal or significant changes in your lives. Below, we highlight three uncomfortable but important conversations adult children should have with their aging parents—and how to broach the difficult subject matter with grace.
3 Uncomfortable (but Necessary) Conversations to Have with Aging Parents
Conversation #1: Driving
Why is it important? Safety. If there’s a possibility of unsafe driving where they could potentially hurt themselves or others, this is a must-have, though often fraught, conversation. “For many older adults,” says Susan K. Whitbourne, faculty fellow at the Institute of Gerontology UMass Boston and expert in aging, “the ability to drive represents a sense of independence and autonomy, as well as validation of the individual’s cognitive abilities.” For this reason, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, warns against draconian orders. Avoid phrases like, “You’re not allowed to drive anymore,” and try something more along the lines “Can we devise a plan together for alternate transportation?”
Conversation #2: Fraud
Why is it important? Your father woke up every day at 5 a.m. for 40 years to open his store and never complained a day in his life. Now, he can finally reap the benefits of retirement (and ya know, wake up at 5:30 a.m. instead). But after answering one strange text message, your well-meaning father’s life savings have nearly vanished. Grandparent fraud is real, people, and Whitbourne considers it one of the top three conversations to have with older adults. According to AARP, from 2015 to 2020, the FTC logged more than 91,000 reports of scammers posing as a relative or friend of the victim. And that’s just one type of fraud targeted toward the elderly. Since no one wants to feel like an easy target or stupid for falling for such schemes, use phrasing that emphasizes how believable these types of scams can be, like, “Scammers use sophisticated tactics and it’s important that we both learn how to spot the red flags.”
Conversation #3: Romantic Relationships
Why is it important? So your Nonny has a new boyfriend, Wilbur in 2F. It was cute at first, but now you’re not sure what to make of Wilbur wanting to move in. Maybe it’s good for her to have company. Or maybe he’s a mooch? As Whitbourne points out, relationship discussions can be highly emotional, but if you’re concerned about an older adult’s romantic attachments, it’s important to have it out. “Adult children may pick up on warning signs that the parent doesn’t see,” she tells us. And these red flags are important because there are scams that might place an older adult at risk of physical, emotional or financial abuse. On the other hand, Wilbur and Nonny might really be great companions. Instead of declaring that Wilbur is bad news and he’s not welcome to Thanksgiving, try to be naturally curious about the new fling so you can gage the details. If you see evidence of any type of physical, emotional or financial abuse, call the elderly abuse hotline in your state.
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