When they speak to elderly seniors, middle-age children and and other adults tend to say things, often unintentionally, that demonstrate a lack of respect and empathy.
Sometimes it happens when a person tries to solve a problem quickly; at others the goal is to move along getting to work or school on time. Not infrequently adult children are frustrated when they need to repeat things which they have already said multiple times. Unfortunately, every time we make one of these comments, the elders in our lives grimace, sigh, or merely shake their heads, making allowances for our rudeness. We don’t mean to say unkind, disrespectful, and yes slightly nutty, things to our elder family members and friends, but we do.
As I’ve talked with elder adults that I know, I’ve discovered three phrases that they dislike hearing.
- YOU’RE CONFUSED — Younger people incorrectly use this phrase with elders when older people take longer to master new tasks or try to get started while unsure about what they are doing, but they are not confused. Most aging adults already know that they don’t remember everything as they used to and that learning unfamiliar things is harder than it used to be. Telling an older adult that he or she is confused is counterproductive. As they age most people discover that the learning curve expands as they age, and they also find that it takes more and more time to sequence a set of learning steps. Many still master new tasks over time, perhaps in two or three lessons, and they dislike hearing someone tell them that they are confused. It’s far better to ask a person if he or she needs help or simply ask whether you can help. If you are teaching something, include no more than two or three steps in any lesson. One important thing to remember is that sometimes older adults are spot-on and not confused, instead they are thinking about something differently.
- JUST LET ME DO THAT FOR YOU — Yes, sometimes it’s much easier to complete a task quickly rather than take the time to coach an individual making a phone call or ordering online. There will be times when an adult child needs to make a call or take over a situation, but most elder adults want to be a part of the decision. If they do not know exactly how to pick out something online or order from sites like Amazon, most will be delighted to sit at the computer with you, look at the pictures, and make choices. As for phone calls, it’s always easier to ask, “Would you like me to make the call?”
- YOU’VE ALREADY TOLD ME THAT — If you are older than your mid-forties, you too repeat things. The difference between older and younger people is that younger adults have more places where they can repeat things and a wider range of individuals to whom they can repeat their stories. But never fear, in a few years we adult children will be repeating things, more than once, to the same person. When your parent or friend repeats a story, the trick is to listen without making a judgement. Or you can say, “You already told me something about that,” and be prepared to ask a follow-up question so the story can continue.
OK, I’ll admit that I’ve said all three of these things to my parents. But I am learning to take the time to recognize when my mom’s eyes roll — or her sadness — and stop myself from making these dismissive and thoughtless responses. You can too.