Ten Things Not to Say to A Senior
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Health conversations with seniors can be tricky. Knowing the right words to choose and the best tone to take can make all the difference.
You want to help your parents or other senior loved ones enjoy a long, healthy life, but if you don’t approach health conversations with care and respect, your best intentions could get the worst reactions. Even well-meaning family members and friends can fall into stereotypes of believing seniors can’t hear, see, or remember well, causing them to make bold (and sometimes rude) statements about senior health and living situations.
“Discussions pertaining to our aging parents’ health-related needs can be emotionally charged and subject to misunderstandings and potential conflicts,” says Jody Gastfriend, LICSW, vice president of care management at Care.com in Waltham, Mass. “In addition, there are topics that may be awkward and potentially embarrassing, such as personal hygiene and self-care.”
For elders, talking about health and aging topics with their grown children may make them fear they’re losing their independence or control. And the adult children may be hit with feelings of vulnerability and loss. However, there are ways to make these difficult health conversations go more smoothly.
Tips for Successful Senior Health Conversations
Maintaining good senior health and personal relationships can sometimes be tricky. Though there’s no doubt these conversations need to be had, the way in which they’re approached can make all the difference. Here are some key mistakes to avoid:
Don’t be too bossy. Resist taking control with a statement like, “Dad, you are not safe living at home on your own, so I have arranged to have a caregiver come several times a week to help with household chores and to keep an eye on you.” Instead, try to start the conversation with concern and in such a way as to elicit feedback from the senior, Gastfriend says. For example, to express the same sentiments, yet enable the senior to maintain a sense of control, say, “Dad, I’m worried about your heart condition, and being home alone all the time isn’t safe. I wonder whether it might be a good idea to get some extra help.”
Don’t assume the role of parent. Part of healthy aging for elders is tied to feeling that they have the right to make their own decisions. Instead of usurping their control, acknowledge the care and concern they showed you as a child by saying something like, “I appreciate the care you took of me when I was young, and now I want to help provide the care you need.”
Don’t use admonitions or scare tactics — like, “If you don’t take better care of yourself you’re going to end up in a nursing home” — to motivate action, Gastfriend warns. This approach can lead to more resentment, anxiety, and fear. Expressing concern and exploring senior housing options slowly, over a period of time, is less threatening and offers the senior the chance to adjust to the idea.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Sometimes seniors tell the same story over and over. Let it go. Don’t say, “You told me this already.” Instead, listen patiently. (If serious memory lapses like forgetting to take medication are happening also, contact the senior’s physician.)
Don’t be the doctor. Avoid making statements like “I think it’s time you face the reality you have dementia,” Gastfriend says. Instead, if cognitive decline is suspected, contact the doctor and arrange for a medical evaluation.
Don’t start conversations with a demand like “you need to” or “you must.” That can trigger resentment. More gentle statements, like “I have observed,” “I am concerned,” or “I want to be helpful,” generally work better.
Don’t assume you’re needed to accomplish tasks for your parents. Using a computer is a perfect example. “You don’t use a computer, so I’ll do it for you” is not the right thing to say. “Older people are often perceived as not being able to learn new tasks or technology,” says Evelyn Fitzwater, DSN, RN, associate director of the Center for Aging With Dignity at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. “There’s a sound of ageism in that perception, while there’s really no evidence that older people are less likely to be able to learn new tricks than they are at any other time in their lives. Instead, offer to teach them if they don’t know how to do something.”
Don’t be discouraging. Instead of telling seniors what they can’t do, emphasize what they can. Also, keep in mind that it’s never too late for healthy aging and making changes for a healthier lifestyle.
Don’t be passive when it comes to senior health. Don’t just answer questions raised by the senior — become an active participant. Many people may not know the right questions to ask, Fitzwater says, so proactively researching, raising questions, and helping educate the elder on aging and age-related changes can be very helpful.
Don’t do nothing. It might be easier sometimes to keep one’s mouth shut and look the other way, but that doesn’t serve anyone if the senior needs help. Raise important topics, but try to do so as gently and politely as possible.
Finally, understand that health conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable situations, and it’s not a terrible thing to admit that. “Often the people who are most uncomfortable with health-related or death-related discussions are younger family members,” notes Jena Kravitz, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. “One reason for this may be attributed to a younger person’s perception of illness and death as something very foreign and frightening.”
Ultimately, no matter the topic or final decision, the most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open.