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Starting the Dialogue with your Aging Parents: Subject Gratitude

April 4, 2013

Have you ever noticed that as a person ages they tend to complain more? This isn’t the case for every individual, but in my work with senior citizens I find that they spend proportionately more time complaining than they do expressing positive thoughts or even displaying positive actions.

This can be due to a number of reasons:

  • Health issues rank high on the list of complaints. In addition, the ancillary aspects of health care such as care received from providers, cost of health care insurance or deductibles, how many medications they must take, chronic pain, and multiple doctors with confusing instructions.
  • Concern over finances is another huge topic of complaints. Our aged parents in the 80s and 90s lived through the depression years and the austerity of the war years. Most have strong values about money and our current economic crisis and huge national debt has them worried. In many instances those living on Social Security or small pensions are afraid their money will run out.
  • Isolation and lack of socialization lead to loneliness and boredom. Adult children are often busy raising their own families and may live great distances from their aging parents. Injury, illness, or lack of stamina may make it harder for your parents to get out and socialize with their friends. Some of their friends may have passed on or be too ill for regular interaction.

The list could go on, but I hope you get the idea. Some people are just prone to be complainers and there’s no sense trying to change their basic personality BUT there are things you can do to make life more pleasant and maybe tip the scales a bit more toward the positive.

If you have a basic understanding of why the items listed above engender so many complaints maybe you can assist in brightening up your parents lives. Basically the negativity is a result of unresolved developmental needs for their age group. In previous posts I’ve talked about the primary developmental needs at the later stages in life. This can involve individuals from as early as their 60s or it may not be evident until later. There is no set age when these developmental needs magically appear and start screaming for attention. For most individuals these needs start to be evident in their 70s and remain intact until the end of life.

If you haven’t read my previous posts you’re probably asking yourself “What are these developmental needs she’s babbling/scribbling about?” According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs two of the greatest needs in aging individuals are 1) a desire to feel that they have accomplished something in their lives; and 2) the need for some control over their current life situations.

So far we’ve established the primary complaints and the developmental needs. What does that have to do with starting a dialogue using gratitude and how does gratitude change any of the complaints?

Suffice it to say that gratitude is an easy topic to engage in during conversation. If someone starts complaining about their pain (and you’ve heard it every time you’ve talked with them) you can easily pull a bait and switch on them by changing the subject or bringing up an event that was fun and gratifying. Hopefully you can see that when I’m talking about gratitude I’m not talking about making a list or being preachy.

Here’s an example:

You go to visit grandpa whom you haven’t seen in a while. He starts right off telling you about the pain in his back and the difficulty he has walking. You let him talk for a minute, not saying much on your part. At a break in the conversation you remind him of how he used to get you up at dawn to go out on the dock and catch fish. The air was so crisp on those early summer mornings and the lake was smooth as glass. The water was so clear you could see the fish in six feet of water and knew just where to drop your baited hook.

As soon as you start talking about this memory grandpa forgets about his back pain and you get off on a topic of the best kind of bait to use for early morning fishing. Do you see how productive this is? You’ve taken his mind off of his pain and you are validating him by reminding him of something he taught you. Put the icing on the cake and thank him for memories of such good times before you leave that afternoon.  Then do one more thing and top off his day by pulling out photos of the two of you enjoying this hobby together. Maybe even ask him to join you on the dock some morning so you can relive those events again.

Another scenario might be something like this:

Easter dinner is to be held at your house this year. Parents will be there from both sides of the family. Your parents are in their 80s and mom hosted the holiday meals up until a few years ago when her rheumatoid arthritis got so bad she couldn’t cook the meals any longer. You in-laws are in their 70s and still active, but your mother-in-law hates to cook and entertain so now the big events are held at your home.

As you are busy in the kitchen (where it seems you’ve been for days preparing for this feast) you hear your parents arrive. Mom comes slowly into the kitchen straining with her walker and wondering loudly if you are going to be serving all the traditional family dishes. Instead of getting cranky with her you pull out the pad with the menu listed on it and ask for her to look it over. She does and gives a grunt of satisfaction.

Once she’s sure you’re going to serve all the proper dishes she starts complaining about the neighbor next door and their barking dog. The noise doesn’t bother you, but apparently your mom has to have something to make herself part of the conversation and this is the topic she has chosen. When she returns from using the bathroom (and giving you a few moments of peace from her complaints) you change the subject to discussion about the recipes.

At this point you can ask her advice or you can remind her about a time when you were helping her in the kitchen. Maybe she was training you to make one of the family favorites and you forgot to add a significant ingredient and the dish was ruined, but the family braved through it. Or maybe you bring up how important it made you feel to be put in charge of making one of the traditional family dishes for a celebration. Whatever the topic is about say your memories of it and then let your mom put in her memories. Once again, remember to thank her for passing on her recipes and cooking skills to you. Praise her for the years she provided wonderful family dinners and celebrations that you remember fondly. Ask her if she has any more special hints she wants to share with you now that the task of entertaining and providing food is your job. Let her know how much you respect her and enjoyed her dedication to the family.

Why are these conversations and expressions of gratitude so important?

  • You’re sharing something other than aches and pains or complaints.
  • Validation of you aging parents self worth meets one of their developmental needs.
  • Expressing gratitude for knowledge or time shared also validates your parent or aging relative and allows them to share things that are important to them in the process.
  • It is easier to express and show love when good times and memories are being shared. We all need large doses of love in our lives.

Do you have a way to get your aging parents or elderly relatives out of their mode of complaining and into a conversation filled with love and good memories? Feel free to share in the comments.

Thank you for reading my blog and sharing in the conversation.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2013 6:50 pm

    This advice couldn’t come at a more opportune moment! I find this a lot with my own parents lately, and when they weren’t feeling well, they could both just sink down to the pits of despair. I found it very challenging to keep them positive, and found myself getting a little more depressed and anxious than usual as a result- negative energy spreads like wildfire sometimes!

    But now that my parents are feeling better, there are more smiles. And they can now sit on their deck as the spring sun warms things up a bit. Laura all of this is so true, you really hit on a key point because, as fast as negative energy spreads, positive energy and gratitude are much more powerful.

    Thanks for sharing this, I think folks in my blog world will get a lot out of this too!

    All the best,
    Pat

  2. April 30, 2013 7:13 pm

    Thanks Patty, you are very kind. I’m hoping to push these issues closer to the surface so more people will at least start thinking of how to overcome the rough parts. Have a great evening!

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