Handling Difficult Conversations

“Memory Matters”   for ALL Ages  LINK TO PROGRAM

Even under the best of circumstances, bringing up a sensitive topic with a loved one can be overwhelming. What needs to be said, how to say it and how you best approach the situation often will lay with the groundwork you set for future conversations.

When talking to my mother about moving from an apartment to assisted living, I learned a lot about what is most helpful and what doesn’t set the stage. Giving up the car keys several years later seemed to go the best when I just expressed some concerns and another time asked what would be her biggest challenges. It was followed up later by offering some suggestions. Some things were already working in her favor. My brother and his family lived a few miles away, my sister stopped by when she was in the area, mom was already in an assisted living, and in recent years she had used senior transportation especially during the winter months.

Each situation is unique and the day may come for any one of us that someone might want to have such a discussion about our safety and quality of life. Looking ahead at the bigger picture is helpful in that you have more say in your options. My view as a person in her late 60′s is very different from what I might have planned 10 or 15 years ago as I write these blogs and do the cable shows corresponding with each one.

Some things to think about:

1. It is usually helpful to mention some of the areas like driving, moving, traveling, cooking  to name a few early on. These require a certain level of cognitive functioning to be safe and listening to loved one’s preferences is a starting point for bringing up other options should circumstances change or a crisis situation occurs.

2. Doing your homework ahead of time regarding their preferences and alternative options can be eye opening. Finances may dictate some of those choices a loved one wants and there may be resources available but they need to be researched and information updated periodically as the years go by. Someone may express the desire to stay in their home and perhaps modifications need to be made if there are a lot of steps or there is not a bathroom with a shower on the first floor.

3. It is important to consider your approach including your body language, choice of words and tone of voice.  Many years ago I heard someone state that the 11th commandment is that you shall not parent your parents. They may need your assistance but they are still your parents.  Showing respect through your communication can go a long way in keeping the door open for discussions as needed.

4. In this world of technology it is more important than ever to listen, be present, and remove all distractions including young children, the television and all electronic devices when having these conversations. If a phone call comes to the home phone, let it go if possible. Once there is an interruption, it can impact the progress you have made in the sharing and listening process. Many older adults have repeatedly voiced to me how much they dislike those who spend more of their time on their phones when visiting rather than in conversation with them.

5.  If your loved one has a hearing loss or a vision problem, it will convey a lot of respect if you alter your presentation accordingly. Sensitivity to those limitations can go a long way in setting the stage for future discussions.

6. Practice some of these strategies in regular conversations on less serious issues with your loved one.  Just spending time visiting and enjoying some time together can make a lot of difference in setting the stage. Bringing all of your concerns up at one time, unless you find yourself in a crisis mode, can be overwhelming especially if they are new or very sensitive topics.

7. When there are family meetings, remember that meetings will not please everyone. Leave old hurts and issues at the door. Older adults also do not need to be caught up in issues their adult children have with each other or ongoing family spats when trying to do some future planning. In some situations it may be helpful or necessary to engage a mediator when family dynamics interfere with productive discussions.

8. Remember each person has a different relationship with their loved one. Once your loved one is safe, it is better to focus your energy on your journey with that person rather than who is doing what.


After spending time with a loved one over the holiday, you may realize that the need for discussions is very likely in the near future. You may find it helpful to refer to the entire series of blogs corresponding to the cable television show. The previous blogs on finances and medications, driving and other concerns for helpful tips may be particularly helpful along with other related topics in the Eldercare series created specifically for that purpose.

If you are together over the holidays, enjoy the time with your loved ones and create new memories if it is necessary to modify some of your longstanding traditions. Click here for more ideas about CREATING TIME WELL SPENT.  Consider products to enhance time spent together including reminiscence puzzles and conversation starters.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, smile, kind word, a listening ear an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”  Leo Buscaglia

Link to “Memory Matters” for ALL Ages  cable television show: Handling Difficult Conversations.

About Kathryn Kilpatrick

Kathryn Kilpatrick received her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology in 1968 from the University of Massachusetts. She has worked in a variety of settings, primarily in Ohio, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and for decades in the area of home health care. Kathryn is president of Memory Fitness Matters (www.memoryfitnessmatters.com) and Communication Connection(www.connectionsincommunication.com). She offers memory coaching for all ages and has a geriatric consulting practice. She is a national motivational speaker and author of more than 30 products to enhance communication and connection as well as a Memory Fitness Toolkit. Kathryn brings her decades of experience as a speech-language pathologist to all those wanting to enhance their quality of life, particularly when there are communication, memory and cognitive challenges. Her websites offer information on a wide variety of topics related to elder care concerns as well as memory fitness and successful aging.
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