What do you do when an elderly parent refuses to listen to reason? On the one hand, we feel blessed to have parents who are with us to a ripe old age. On the other, the struggle for control can bring out our worst tendencies.
Last month I found myself going head-to-head with my elderly father. Dad had recently moved in with us because he was unhappy at his senior apartment complex. At first things seemed to be going fine. Then one day Dad announced that he would be moving back to our hometown to live in his hardware store. My immediate reaction was, "WHAAT??! Why would you want to leave a family who loves you (including the world's cutest dog) to live alone in your store?" It made no sense. Dad dug in. I objected. We were at loggerheads.
Then I stepped back and pulled out what I’ve termed the AIKIDO Method™ for resolving an emotionally-charged conflict.
I use the AIKIDO Method™ when I catch myself going head-to-head with someone who, according to me, “doesn’t understand how wrong they are!!” It was inspired by my college friend, Nancy, who was studying Aikido martial arts. It looks like this:
The art of Aikido, Nancy explained, lies in the merging of energy between the master and her opponent. Rather than lunging forward to land a body blow, she stays balanced and centered. Then, with a precise touch, she skillfully deflects the opponent's energy. No blows are exchanged and no one is hurt, yet the opponent is neutralized.
It's tempting to make a knee-jerk response to your elderly parents' demand. That would be a big mistake. Your parent's stated desire is the tip of the iceberg. Your quest is to learn how it connects with your parent's deeper need. Start with the assumption that you don't know what your parent's real need is.
Before talking with your elderly parent, check in with yourself. Check to see if your own emotions are getting in the way of seeing the situation clearly. Is your vision clouded by a desire to protect your elderly parent from every conceivable risk? Are you carrying some guilt or resentment? I realized that my reaction had little to do with my dad's safety. Worry, resentment, frustration, guilt - these were my real opponents.
Stop. Breathe. Allow the emotions in. Ask yourself how you can approach the issue with a heart which is open to all possibilities.
Focus your investigation on understanding your parent's point of view. What drives are motivating your parent’s desire? The human drives for control, belonging, purpose, and legacy are fundamental. For elderly parents, control becomes primary, as their losses increase with age. Legacy becomes paramount to an elderly parent as he considers the impact of his life.
Ask open-ended questions that elicit more of your parent's story. I asked dad, "what will you do at the hardware store?" "I'm worried about it," Dad said. "The guys need my help." Ah, now we were on to something. He needs to be sure that the store he built will thrive after his death and he needs to feel needed.
When elderly parents won't listen to reason, then listen for their emotional goals. Chances are you can help your parent achieve much of what they need to do.
What is your ideal outcome and your acceptable minimum outcome? My ideal was that Dad stay with us; my acceptable minimum was that wherever he chose to live, he needed to be safe. Once I accepted those parameters, my mind started working on ways to make what Dad wanted real for him.
Write down your ideal and minimal alternatives. Consider how you could make them happen for your elderly parents. Consider the obstacles and how you might work through them.
Identify the common goals you share with your parent. My father and I both wanted to feel connected, to have our autonomy, to be safe, and to take care of the family hardware store. This became our common goal to negotiate towards.
Plan your talk carefully. Don't expect resolution or even understanding to occur in one talk. Realize that it may take place slowly, over a number of days. Your goal is not to push your point of view on your elderly parent. Your goal is to listen and create a safe space for your parent to fully express him or herself. Once you’ve outlined your approach, check it
with a trusted ally. My friend Andrea reminded me to tell my father how much we needed him!
Make your offer. Your offer should meet your minimum bottom line and also further your parent's agenda. If you don't get immediate agreement, get agreement to think on it overnight. With my emotions under control and a good understanding of Dad's emotional needs, I could now make Dad an open-hearted offer that combined his needs with mine.
I offered to take Dad back to my hometown for a week-long visit where he could look at living options close to the store. Dad agreed to this plan.
The two weeks leading up to our trip were a delight because Dad and I were aligned. We enjoyed spending time together. Dad worked in the garden, finding one after another shrub to prune. By the time the trip came, Dad had decided that he “could be selfish” and live with us. The visit confirmed his decision. Now he’s home for good.
Try the AIKIDO Method™ the next time you are deep in an emotionally-charged conflict with your elderly parent. I'd love to hear how it works for you.
NOTE: This post was updated 10/25/2017 with a new AIKIDO Method graphic and some changes to the explanatory text.
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