The term “elder frustration” is used to describe frustration that adult children, caregivers and sometimes professionals experience when communicating with elders, e.g. when an older person repeats themselves or talks about seemingly inconsequential stuff. Frustration is a two-way street; elders also become frustrated when people don’t respect their autonomy (e.g. not taking “no” as an answer) or listen to what they say and want.
What is the way out of this mutual frustration, from subpar communication to redemptive, meaningful change?
“How to Say it to Seniors” Book
In a book recently recommended to me by a teacher called “How to Say it to Seniors,” author David Solie (MS, PA) applies lessons from geriatric psychology and his own experience working with seniors and their financial and legal professionals to show all of us how to bridge a generational communication gap so that we can understand and work together more effectively.
Developmental Stage of Elders: Overview
Solie points to the work of psychology giant Erik Erikson who developed the eight stages of life theory (pgs. 15-20); each stage has its own tension that people must resolve in order to “graduate” to the next stage. For example, during the “terrible twos” the conflict is between the need for independence from mom while still needing mom, teen years involve similar conflicts between a need for independence while still being dependent, and during midlife the tension has more to do with the struggle between working for one’s self versus for the larger good.
Finally during elder years, for the first time people are not looking forward but rather they look backward. They are in effect making sense of their life and thinking about legacy, whether consciously or unconsciously. In addition to their strong need for autonomy and control (as a response to significant loss experienced at this stage of life), “The need to be remembered, to uncover their lasting legacy, is the other urgent developmental task confronting the elderly.” (pg. 37)
Just like toddlers and later teens balance conflicting needs, so do elders. Their conflict is between a need for autonomy versus a need to detach from the present in order to focus instead on legacy building.
Elders’ Conflicting Needs Are Below the Surface
Oftentimes, elders and those around them are not aware of this tension. Rather, they are completely preoccupied by physical, mental, social, financial, personality, and family dynamic challenges swirling around them, which deprive them of the head space to do the mental work necessary for a retrospective review of life and legacy development.
Indeed, “[m]ost of the unsettling behavior of older people is the result of developmental tasks operating quite intensely in a world that is hostile to them.” (pg. 5)
“While they feel a subconscious urge to hang on tight, they are also faced with the daunting task of discovering how they'll be remembered. How do these two needs conflict?
If seniors feel they do not have enough control over daily events, they spend all their time fighting for it. That fight leaves them no physical or psychic energy to relax in the reflective mode needed to review past events, the preliminary step necessary to form their legacy. Fulfilling this aspect of their developmental mandate is the opposite of maintaining control; It is the ultimate process of letting go.” (pg. 36)
The process of life review is “a continuous and involuntary retrospective in which senior adults weigh everything they have done in order to build understanding and acceptance of the life they lived. Suddenly they are called upon to shape out of the mists of their life experience a legacy that is not just politically correct, but also heartfelt and meaningful.” (pg. 38)
How to Help
As mediators, we can ask questions and make observations in order to help elders and their families reflect upon how an elder’s developmental stage may be playing out in family dynamics and contributing to communication difficulties.
We can help people reframe from seeing elders as simply older, diminished versions of themselves, fretting over seemingly inconsequential matters or abruptly ending conversations before resolving anything, to people who are doing the hard and important work of life review.
With this more nuanced understanding, it can become easier for family members to back off of pressuring parents, even when they do so with the best of intentions and for good reason.
Redemptive Power of Backing Off
Solie argues that “an amazing thing happens when we back off and stop badgering senior adults to do something they are resisting for whatever reason: We give them room to resolve the conflict. . . (pg. 31)
Once an adult child stops using pressuring language and an elder hears that they have control over the situation, he will feel “free to make a different decision.” (pg. 31)
More Ways to Help
Solie offers practical suggestions to facilitate life review and minimize communication conflict. Consider the common dilemma of “Where will I live?” It is common for an adult child to press a parent to move out of the family home into assisted living or a nursing home. Oftentimes, this pressure will prompt an elder to dig in their heels:
“Elder’s Predictable Reaction: “Here is just fine.”
Child’s Predictable Response: “This is no longer fine”
Given the developmental agenda driving us, we argue, cajole, and try to persuade our elders that moving is “for their own good.” (pg. 90)
An alternative approach, if their health permits, is to focus on getting an elder the support services they need to remain at home, to respect their autonomy and need for control. The “plant-and-wait” technique may work well. Solie continues:
“When we sense resistance to the idea of moving, drop the subject entirely and instead bring the house to life [ask parents about stories and details about the house] . . . Don’t mention moving until they bring up the subject again. And they will, because once they have done the psychic sorting they need to do and the home’s meaning to their legacy is clear, their need for connection with the physical space will disappear. They’ll begin to ask subtle questions such as “Is that new block of apartments completed? . . .” (pg. 91)
This example illustrates that the dilemma of where to live need not necessarily cause insurmountable conflict.
Rather, adult children (and family professionals) should realize that the question “Where will I live?” gives elders a chance to examine the things and events associated with a family home that provide “an opportunity to help our elders explore a vital piece of the reflective work they need to do as they near the end of their lives.” (pg. 91) For example, asking about the stories associated with objects in the home and tying events that happened in the home to personal values and perspectives provides fertile ground for life review and exploration of legacy.
“How to Say it to Seniors” is a “must read” for adult “elder” mediators, as well as family members and professionals looking to close the communication gap with elders. By closing this gap, we reduce our own frustration, while assisting elders with their sacred end-of-life tasks. This contribution to their process strengthens the bond of understanding between everyone, including ourselves.
In 2004 when this book was written, the term “senior” did not have quite the pejorative meaning it does today. I sometimes substitute the word “elder” instead of “senior” in order to avoid possibly distracting the reader by using a term that has fallen in disfavor.