A toddler’s “No!”, a teen’s rebellion, and your aging parent’s attempts at control are all related to developmental tasks we tackle at key stages in life.
David Solie’s well-written book, How to Say It to Seniors, discusses two main tasks of elders that are at once conflicting and potentially frustrating to us. Understanding our parents’ developmental challenges, he says, will enable us to improve our communication and our relationship.
Your parent’s first goal, says Solie, is to maintain as much control as possible, in the face of a litany of losses: of physical strength, friends and financial status, to name a few. Piled on top of each other, these losses often prompt him to cry, “No!” in toddler-style, figuratively stamping his feet, even to ideas that seem reasonable. Meanwhile our developmental agenda compels us to get things done, make decisions and act on them. As Solie says, “Our drivers can clash with theirs that compel them to hang on tight and to reflect.”
The best tact is to avoid power struggles and to go with our parents’ wishes whenever possible. If they are firm about wanting to stay in their home, for example, we may need to orchestrate an array of services to make that happen. Assuming that’s possible.
Sometimes just giving our parents space and grace will enable them to make an informed decision that’s right for them. Not long ago I met a 90-year-old woman who struggled with hoarding. Her home and furnishings were growing mold, with possessions and paper piled everywhere.
“By winter the house won’t be inhabitable,” her son said. Another issue: her failing memory. But Mom dug in her heels when he mentioned moving. A few months later, given time, patience and numerous visits, she called me: “I’ve decided to move into the apartment you offered.”
Your parent’s second developmental task is to preserve a legacy. “Every day, every hour, whether they mention it or not, the seventy-plus age group is reviewing their lives,” Solie says. Consciously and unconsciously, they ponder how and by whom they would like to remembered. They repeat the same stories again and again in great detail, not so much for the facts as for the inherent values. And they often take a long time to make a decision.
Solie’s biggest piece of advice is so listen to our parents. Really listen. If we do, we may pick up on what values they cherish. We may have the opportunity to watch the unveiling of a legacy right before our eyes.