DOs and DON’Ts of caregiving communication

By Valerie
March 23, 2021

Tips for conversing without conflict

As a caregiver to an aging loved one, conversations can range from the mundane, “Did you enjoy your lunch today?” to the messy, “I think it’s time you had help bathing.” And the trickier conversations, particularly emotionally loaded ones, can lead to conflict if not handled correctly.

Good communication builds trust and understanding. Being able to communicate effectively is important in all relationships, regardless of whether it’s between co-workers, life partners or parent and adult child.

As much as you may want to avoid and ignore certain topics, sooner or later important emotional issues will need to be addressed. Trust me, where possible, you’ll want to try avoiding hitting these trickier topics head on during a crisis. The following guidelines will help you focus your efforts to get the best out of complicated discussions.

DON’T do the following:

Parent your parent. As your parents’ health declines, you can find yourself providing more care and support; it can feel as though roles have reversed. Sometimes we find ourselves giving advice or trying to help solve problems. Don’t forget, they are still adults with a lifetime of experience who are capable of making choices for themselves.  You may not agree with their decisions; however, it is not up to you to tell them what to do.

Talk, talk, talk. Speak less and listen more. If you are taking up more than half the conversation, dial it back. Acknowledging others’ concerns and questions is important, but you don’t need to answer every single point made. The more you listen, the more you learn to hear the subtleties between the lines.

Overload the agenda. In an effort to get things out of the way, it’s tempting to talk about numerous issues. Fight the urge and limit your itinerary.

Try to win. You are a team. It’s not about one side or the other getting their way; it’s about coming up with a solution that works for everyone.

Lay blame and be defensive. Bringing up old hurts is never helpful. Stick with the present and look to the future. And don’t be defensive; step back, observe and try to understand before taking comments to heart.    

DO this instead:

Ask how you can help. Boundaries and respect are vital. Rather than telling them what they should need, do or feel, ask them how you can help them or what they need from you.

Ask rather than assume. When we make assumptions, typically they are based on what would work best or make things easier for us.  One of the key roles a family caregiver plays is to support the person needing care in living their life as they want to, based on the current circumstances.

Plan ahead and prepare. Think about where and when to have the conversation. Pick a place with few distractions and at an appropriate time of day. (Heck, even I get crabby when I’m hungry!) Practice what you want to say with a partner/coach who can give you feedback about your approach.

Examine your own behaviour. Resistance often happens when we are trying to tell someone what to do or to control their behaviour based on our own agenda.

Use “I” statements. Shift declarative statements away from being accusatory. Rather than saying, “You are being…,” employ phrases like, “I feel that… My perception is….” “I” statements can lead to sharing and negotiation rather than allegations.

Share the time. Allow everyone at the meeting to have the same amount of time to have his or her say. It builds team spirit, accountability and a “we’re-all-in-this-together” attitude.

Practice peace. If you’re continually having issues, consider involving a professional. Case managers, eldercare planners, social workers or a minister can facilitate the conversation objectively, keep things focused, quickly identify priorities and provide clear action items for you and your loved one to follow up with.

Put yourself in their shoes. Remember you will likely one day find yourself in a similar situation. Think about how you would like to be treated, regardless of your physical or mental limitations. I always ask myself, “How would I like to treated in a similar situation?”

Caregiving is demanding; communicating clearly and effectively is challenging. Doing both at the same time is complex. But when you get it right, the rewards are priceless.

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC