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Commentary: When grown kids and elderly parents are at a loss for words

The June 28 “The God Squad” column surprised me. There are other, non-punitive ways to approach the 86-year old mom whose daughter wrote in— tried-and-true ways that are much more likely to resolve the real issues, and that are genuinely more respectful than removing phone calls to try to alter behavior.

What is needed to improve the relationship here is a different kind of communication, not limited communication. This would be my answer to an issue that may be endemic in long-distance elderly parent-grown child relationships:

Her behavior, since it is different than it used to be, should not be interpreted as an attack on the kids. It is an indication of something else gone awry. Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so when mom is 86, was widowed the year before, and now is acting strangely, why not look at these three factors to see if any of them are connected?

For instance, if dad was making most of the decisions about lifestyle— activities, purchases, relationships—mom is now making these for the first time at age 86. If she was an active partner, now she is by herself to make those decisions and cope with the results, and she misses the everyday companionship as well.

The letter to "The God Squad" doesn’t say whether dad died from a long illness or catastrophically, but these make a difference in when, if, and how good-byes were said. Sure, grown kids miss their dad also, so why not ask her how things are going for her without him? Share that you are grieving, too, and then just listen to her reply. She may be anxious about her own health also, and so make sure her wishes for her future care will be honored when necessary.

Try also asking her this potent question: What is the one best thing I can do for you right now? The question may surprise her, but when she tells you, chances are it is something small that you can arrange. Most likely it doesn’t involve flowers or candy, but it may involve movie tickets and a cab; a driving service weekly to take her wherever she wants to go; a regular game of canasta or a discussion group at the local community center or religious center; a weekend arranged to visit the grandkids and of course, the kids.

The key is to not disagree or interrupt on the telephone, especially since those have triggered tart comments or angry phone messages. Eliminate the triggers, and instead, listen, accommodate, and call upon support groups where she lives to help engage her in activities she has always enjoyed. Not reacting the way you usually do doesn’t make you unheard; it makes you heard in a better way. Nasty retorts, especially when they can't be readily answered, are a form of powerless rebellion (but it is also possible that the “drop dead” comment in the first year of mourning came straight from her feeling of loss).

Does all this mean you are giving her power? Actually, giving people back the power they didn’t have, have lost, or feel they have lost is the way to achieve cooperation. Without personal power, people either wilt or rebel, and that is not what is needed for anyone’s health and happiness.

At age 86, neither of you needs the end to a “toxic relationship.” What can work is purposely changing the patterns of communication so that toxicity in what appears to be a loving relationship naturally drains away—because it won’t be needed anymore.

Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. The grandmother of six, she has been a trained telephone crisis counselor on a county hotline, and she received the Exceptional Performance Award as a member of the faculty of the National Guild of Hypnotists. She also writes the Buffalo Books column.

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