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Tips for Delivering Bad News to Senior Parents

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonFebruary 23, 2017
Tips for Delivering Bad News to Senior Parents

There’s no easy way to deliver bad news, and it can be even more difficult when the recipient is a loved one or your senior parents. Read these tips, which will help your discussion go more smoothly.

Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad tidings, but when a loved one is in poor health or suffering from early-stage dementia, it is necessary. Nevertheless  it can be difficult broaching the topic, whether it’s the death of a family member, the onset of a disease or the specter of financial trouble. Our suggestions for how to deliver bad news to senior parents — and how to talk about tough subjects — will help you deliver the news in a way that’s both compassionate and honest.

Preparing Yourself for a Tough Conversation

Getting ready to deliver bad news to your senior parents involves preparation — not only is it important to make sure that the person you’re speaking with has a moment to prepare for what’s coming, it’s also essential for you to be ready. Make sure you know the details, write down what you would like to say, then read it aloud to someone you trust for feedback.

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“The problem is that children and other family members often deflect the topic, considering it depressing or think that it is encouraging their family member to ‘give up.’ The best advice is to keep an ear open for opportunities to have this discussion,” says Heather Adams, psychology professor at University of Phoenix.

“If the elder senses that you are comfortable with the topic, he himself is more likely to bring it up spontaneously when he is ready to, at a time and in a way that’s more comfortable… for him,” says Dr. Rob Schaeffer, a psychologist in Modesto, California. “Conversely, if she senses your discomfort, she is less likely to do so. Often elders are more comfortable and more aware of dying issues than we realize, but may not bring them up for fear that we are not ready to handle it.”

Tips for Delivering Bad News to Senior Parents

Effective communication is clear communication, but it’s also sympathetic communication that takes into account the comfort level of the individual. For instance, if you’re passing along bad news of a death in the family, says Dr. Schaeffer, “it’s important to listen to elders to get a sense of their readiness to discuss issues of dying, aspects that are important to them, and the language that works best for them.”

Some might prefer direct language and a matter-of-fact approach, while others prefer gentler wording such as “passing on.”

Phrasing is definitely important when it comes to delivering sensitive news. Starting a tough conversation with “I” sentences is a good way to convey that you’re sincere and that you empathize with the recipient of the news. Some examples from Dr. Schaeffer:

  • I’m afraid I have bad news to tell you…
  • I feel a need to talk about…
  • I’m fearing…
  • I find myself thinking about…
  • I have something important to tell you…
  • I’m hoping…
  • I wish the news were different…

Remember that your loved one may also need privacy and time to let the news sink in. The recipient will experience some sort of reaction — anger, despair, disbelief etc. — and it’s important to give them a chance to adjust to the news and to ask questions if they need more information.

Tips for Sharing Bad News When a Parent Has Alzheimer’s or Dementia

The advice gets a little more complicated for a senior parent with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. They may bring up a deceased relative in conversation, leaving you to wonder whether you should remind them the person is dead, or even tell them in the first place.

“Most advice is to tell them once, and ask them how they feel about the person’s not being around anymore,” says Dr. Adams. “This adds feelings to the memory, which helps make the memory more concrete.”

Then, if your loved one asks again later about where the deceased is, you can say something like, “They are just fine. How do you feel that they aren’t here anymore?” According to Dr. Adams, “This can prompt a memory of the earlier conversation and will allow them to process their feelings while reminding them that everyone is alright and there isn’t anything to be afraid of. Depending on what the family member remembers of the deceased, their emotions will be different.”

Ways to Offer Your Support

There are many different ways to let your loved one know that you’re there to support them, regardless of the nature of the bad news.

Dr. Schaeffer stresses that it’s good to be clear on which aspects of the situation are important to you and which are important to your loved one, so that you can be sure you’re effectively communicating.

For example, when talking about a death in the family, you might be more concerned with practical aspects of the situation such as last wills, while your loved one might be worried about the interpersonal aspects such as the effect on the rest of the family. The most effective way to show your support is to make it clear that you’re listening to your loved one’s concerns.

Do you have advice on how to deliver bad news to your senior parents? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson

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