I went with my dad to a doctor’s appointment a few weeks ago. He was in an irritable mood when I picked him up, but it seemed to get worse when the doctor said she was concerned about his heart health, and that he should follow a stricter diet with more vegetables and whole grains, referring my dad to a nutritionist. Dad didn’t say much, but he gruffly assured the doctor he had everything under control.
Back in the car, I asked my dad if he wanted me to make an appointment with the nutritionist, but, just like he told the doctor, he said he’d take care of everything himself. So, a week later, when I caught my dad eating salty snacks, I reacted. I told him I was really afraid for his health. Doesn’t he realize how close he is to some very serious complications?
If I had had the patience to step back, I might have anticipated his reaction, which was defensive and guarded. Our pathway for constructive communication seemed even less accessible now, while all of my concerns remained. Still, I was determined to reach a place of understanding, a place from which to move forward. I needed a more purposeful way to approach the issue—both of his health and of our ineffective communication.
Finding a Path to Compassionate Communication
The truth was, I was desperate to see my dad choosing to take better care of himself. But when I communicated that desperation, it seemed to push him even further from acceptance and positive action. But I couldn’t just leave the matter alone, so I did some research, looking for guidance on communicating with Dad in a way that complements his personality and his values.
Institute on Aging offers an easy online quiz that helps you to identify your aging loved one’s communication style—and your own. Awareness of your different ways of approaching feelings and conflicts can go a long way toward a more successful conversation than the one I originally had with my dad. So, I took the quiz for both of us.
My communication style turned out to be the Narrator, and my dad’s the Assertor. I found pages discussing not only my natural ways of talking and listening, but also my dad’s ways of perceiving and analyzing the world, plus tips on how to approach him in conversation in general, as well as when it specifically relates to challenges that our aging loved ones commonly face.
Filtering Through My Own Communication Barriers
Now that I have our communication styles more clearly defined, if I choose to ignore them—if I expect my dad to respond to things just as I would or to treat my feelings exactly how I would treat his—I’ll be choosing to do so even though I know there is a more compassionate path laid out before me.
The first time I approached my dad, I led with my own fears over his health, implying his failure to understand the scope of the issue and inability to make the right decision. The second time around, I asked myself, “Do I really believe he is incapable of making the right choices and taking charge of his own situation?” I know my dad to be capable, even though he has experienced changes that have slowed him down in this new phase of life. He is still his same, powerful self, and my doubting him only serves to isolate him from this identity. I want to support and empower him to continue to leverage his strengths as he always has, even if the challenges he faces as he ages are new and unfamiliar.
The guide to the Assertor advised me to take time to prepare before approaching the conversation, as the Assertor appreciates objectivity and accuracy, as well as the opportunity to be actively involved in the decisions that affect him. It also advised me to get straight to the point, rather than wade through feelings and delay the real course of action.
I could recognize my own (Narrator’s) strong desire to lead with feelings, but, instead, I spent some time before the conversation getting in touch with my emotions on my own, giving them a space, identifying the fear and anxiety and uncertainty and sadness I was experiencing. I didn’t want to be reactive, as I had been the first time. Being compassionate with my needs and acknowledging my feelings, even just to myself, helped me to put more of my dad’s wants and desires first.
Honoring My Dad’s Desires and Decisions
I approached my dad a second time, apologizing for doubting him before and expressing that I really just want to support him, however I can. I know that he can get everything under control once he has a plan in place. Since he doesn’t have a printer and I do, I printed out a lot of research for him to read on his own and absorb. When Dad countered with, “Well, that doctor doesn’t know everything about me,” I countered back, saying, “You and I both know the doctor did the right tests and found the real problems.” After all, the guide had encouraged me to stand up for my perspective and give him reasons to respect me as an equal in the decision-making process.
Dad sighed, and after just a moment of hesitation, he reached for the stack of pages I’d printed on the consequences of high blood pressure and cholesterol. From that point on, I didn’t have to strategize our way into the conversation; we were there, discussing the facts and the possibilities for action. It wasn’t light or pleasant because we were still talking about some really serious health issues. But, at least, we were no longer struggling against the barriers of communication—our own and each other’s.
My dad has spent most of his life leading others, developing solid plans of action, and relying on his strength and resiliency. Now that he’s retired and his kids are all grown, he’s no longer using these qualities daily that were so central to his identity. But, that doesn’t mean he can’t find new ways to exercise his strengths within the challenges life is presenting him right now. And IOA’s communication style quiz helped me to come to terms with that.
The more my dad needs care and assistance, the more I want to ensure his quality of life continues to be a reflection of who he is, what he values, and how he naturally relates to the world. This can be true of how I, and others, communicate with him—and also how we design his routines and his care for the sake of his health and his happiness. In fact, I’m inspired to find more ways to open my eyes and my heart to my dad’s unique experience, so that he never has to feel isolated again.
Whether your aging loved one is a Contemplator, an Assertor, a Narrator, or a Demonstrator, Institute on Aging provides the resources for you to better understand and enhance your relationship and your communication. Get in touch with questions, and to find out how we can help improve your loved one’s quality of life.