How to Parent Your Parent

In the healthiest of family relationships and dynamics, one of the hardest conversations to have with your aging parents is when *you* need to take on the parental role. But is this something we really need to worry about right now? The answer is a resounding yes. 

According to NBC Left F!eld, “Many have called the impending population change a ‘gray tsunami,’ both for America and the world. In the United States, the number of people over the age of 65 will increase by 111 percent, from 45 million in 2010 to 86 million in 2050; globally, the number of senior citizens will triple to 1.5 billion. As this wave gathers force, we can look around and see that, as a society, we’re completely unprepared.” 

how to talk to an aging parent

Your parent may be facing a health issue that he or she doesn’t want to talk about, or maybe it’s time to take their car keys away. How can you best discuss these tricky situations with your loved one?

“It is an awkward feeling to parent your parent(s). The situation needs to be handled carefully, respectfully, and with dignity. Unless your parents are not of sound mind, they are responsible for their own decisions. You, as their child, can certainly voice an opinion and offer to assist. Still, their choices are their own unless they ask for help,” says Adina Mahalli, MSW certified mental health consultant and family care specialist from Maple Holistics.

How to talk to a parent about failing health

Let’s face it; nobody wants to think about a parent’s failing health, whether it’s a physical condition or mental issue like dementia. 

Senior Living Support’s Pam Kelleher advises us “to remember that they are people. Not any different than we are, so when you approach them, it is essential to talk to them as equal and not as a child or like there is something wrong with them. Older people are sensitive to feeling that they are older and, therefore, not thought of the same way by others.

Ideally, this is a conversation that should take place while everyone is healthy and not at a time of vulnerability. It should also include all the members of the immediate family and all those directly impacted, Mahalli says.

 “There are situations when we, as the children, must step back and allow our parents to decide for themselves, even when we don’t agree. That is difficult, but there are always reinforcements that may be called in. You can call another family meeting and include a social worker that specializes in geriatric care. Many times there is no fee involved as they are State-funded. And if your parent(s) is a Veteran of the Armed Forces, the VA also has great resources at no expense,” she reminds us.

How to talk to a parent about long-term care or assisted living

One common issue that families often face is moving a parent to an assisted living facility. This is a massive decision if they can no longer care for themselves, and you can’t tend to them yourself.

According to Seniorly CEO and co-founder Arthur Bretschneider, “bringing up an assisted living community can be a tough conversation, especially when you’re not sure how your loved ones will react. Although you may want to avoid having this talk with your parents, it’s important to discuss options and be prepared before a crisis occurs that requires a quick decision.”

A positive way to approach it is by looking at the move as a way that your parent(s) can enjoy their life to the fullest in an assisted living facility.

Keep in mind that significant transitions like moving from home to an assisted living community will involve an ongoing dialogue. Don’t expect your parents to make up their minds overnight. Although that initial conversation may be tough, it’s probably only the first of several talks you’ll have as you work with your parents to come to a solution that everyone feels comfortable with. Even if you become worried or frustrated, remain supportive and upbeat, so your parent continues to see you as a helpful, compassionate sounding board as they move towards a decision.

How to talk to your parent about driving

The elderly can become depressed if you or a doctor takes away their autonomy. Deciding when it’s no longer safe for your parents to drive is a tough one. You don’t want them to get in an accident, or for them to cause one. But how do you bring that up with the people who probably taught you how to drive?

“Rather than barging in with guns blazing, many families have found that simply calling a family meeting expressing concern, identifying issues, and offering potential solutions is beneficial,” Mahalli says. “Hostile takeovers are rarely successful. Asking for your parents’ advice is important so that they feel a part of their care and not just the elephant in the room.”

How to talk to your parents about making a will

None of us want to think about our parents’ death; however, we all know that like taxes, it’s inevitable.

It’s essential to also ask about their end of life wishes. Questions like do they own burial property and a will are crucial to know. Many hospitals have downloadable forms with checklists that include all these and more. It is best if these forms are filled out by them so that their wishes may be adhered to as much as possible, Mahalli explains.

Tips for having hard conversations with your parents

The biggest takeaway when taking on the role of parenting your parents is compassion.

Let them know that love them and that they have done so much for you all of your life, so now it is your time to help them, Kelleher says.

Once you have opened the door in a conversational way in which you are not criticizing or talking down to them or taking over, it becomes easier to approach that topic that you are worried and think they need help. Then you can offer suggestions or offer to help them find some options that then THEY can choose what they need. The key is taking some control while making sure they keep their control and allow them to be part of the conversation. 

Also, other family members who will be caring for and speaking with your parents should all be on the same page. Really put some time and thought into what you are going to say as a group.

Bretschneider offers this guidance before beginning any conversation with your parents:

  • Start by doing your homework before you say anything. 
  • Look for a good opening for the conversation. 
  • Communicate that they are in charge of making the decision. 
  • Keep things positive and show how their lives will become easier. 
  • Ask about their concerns and offer reassurance. 
  • Don’t push for a decision right away.

Though these types of conversations won’t be easy for you or your parent, these suggestions, hopefully, should not only get you started but probably make the conversations a bit easier.

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About Ronni Robinson

Ronni is a member of the Sandwich Generation; she's the tired lunch meat layered between two children and aging parents. She is an eating disorder recovery coach, a 3-time Ironman finisher, and is a certified spin instructor. Her first book, Out of the Pantry: A Disordered Eating Journey, can be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can find more of her professional writing and coaching info on her website (

8 thoughts on “How to Parent Your Parent

  1. Great insight and advice on how to address such important and sensitive subjects. Taking the keys away was such a traumatic time in our family’s life.

    1. omg, i really dread the day i have to take my 82-year old mother’s keys away. do you wait until she gets into an accident first? and then how do you handle her transportation? *sigh*

    1. thanks, Karen! i liked that part too. you want them to feel as much as possible that they still have a voice. i know i will want that in my (hopefully distant) future.

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