Bob Horrocks: Compassionate conversations in caring for an aging parent


“Compassion is a verb.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an unavoidable fact about being human: Every challenging transition of our lives is accompanied by at least one very uncomfortable moment.

Remember puberty? Dating? Asking for a promotion? Becoming a parent? All of these life changes can be so rewarding and lead us to new growth, new maturity — and yet they all include some uncomfortable moments. Aging is unfortunately no exception.

With age, we face questions and situations we aren’t prepared for — like when it’s time to relinquish the car keys, or at what point we would prefer to forgo medical intervention and be allowed to die. These decisions are the difficult side effect of living a long life, and none of us looks forward to making these particular life choices. Being the adult child of an aging parent, though, can place us in what might be an even more uncomfortable spot — dealing with these same questions with regard to someone we dearly love.

If you are faced with having to broach such a challenging topic, first and foremost, begin with compassion. Know that however difficult this conversation may be for you, it is surely much more difficult for your older loved one. As we age, we often have fewer choices available to us, and thus we cling more staunchly to the options and independence that life does afford us. What seems to you like a conversation about giving up car keys may feel to your parent like asking them to give up their self-reliance, or even part of their identity.

So, armed with your compassion, how should you approach the conversation? First, plan for it to take some time, and avoid bringing it up when you have to rush off to another appointment or obligation. And expect that any decision or change of course will not be made as the result of just one conversation; view your task as opening the door to an ongoing dialogue that may or may not lead to change. Try not to convince. Instead, try to offer insights, alternatives and resources, and ask your parent to make the decisions. They are, after all, an adult, and it is their life which will be affected by the outcome.

Since these are decisions which may evolve slowly over time, begin sooner rather than later. Difficult conversations are made more so when they must be forced to a conclusion because the matter has become an urgent health or safety issue. So it’s easiest for all involved to begin the discussion before there is a crisis at hand. Important, life-altering decisions are best made thoughtfully at the kitchen table, not in an ICU or in the aftermath of a car accident.

Rather than talking about your observations or giving directives, start by discussing your own concerns and fears about the situation, and do so with empathy. Rather than, “Dad, you’ve got to give me power of attorney,” try something like this: “Dad, have you thought about what kind of intervention you would want if something serious were to happen with your health? I’m concerned that since I don’t know your wishes, I might not make the right decisions in an emergency. Could we talk about that, or do some research together on what the options are?” Do not tell; simply ask.

Recognize that, in some cases, your parent may already be thinking about these important topics, but may be avoiding starting the conversation just as you are. The aging experts on my staff have found that, occasionally, parents are relieved that their child found the courage to start the discussion. And in other cases, a parent’s response may be curt or seem angry, which is when a compassionate approach is vitally important. Understanding how the discussion makes your parent feel and not expecting any immediate answers or changes, you will be prepared to let the conversation end gracefully. Once the topic has been put on the table, it may resurface another day — perhaps with a different tone or outcome.

My staff at SourcePoint has a wealth of knowledge and expertise, which is available to you with a simple phone call to our office or by visiting our website. If you are interested in learning more about our in-home care services or the ways we can support you in your duties as a family caregiver, please visit our website at There you can also find my previous columns on topics like the importance of respect in caregiving, and how to have a successful family meeting. If you would prefer to talk to us by phone, we welcome your call at 740-363-6677.

Bob Horrocks

Contributing columnist

Bob Horrocks is executive director of SourcePoint.

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