Communicating To Understand Each Other

By Joyce Koria Hayes, Esquire

When family members try to talk about sensitive topics, it frequently happens that someone’s feelings get hurt or someone gets angry and all meaningful discussion ends. Rather than improving, sometimes the situation just gets worse. Why? Often, different perspectives will lead to different proposed solutions, and as well, family history can interfere with communication and understanding.

Take the case of Mrs. O. Suddenly the otherwise healthy Mrs. O, the primary caregiver for a slightly disabled husband, suffered a bout of pneumonia that had her in the hospital for a short while and left her with little energy upon her return home. Their children were working people with families, and did not have time to be primary care providers for both parents. The children were urging a move to assisted living. From their perspective, assisted living was the best solution – both parents cared for with little demand on the children’s time. But for Mrs. O it was devastating to face the loss of her beautiful, comfortable home which she had managed well until just a few months before. She was not ready to make a permanent change that would mean she could never return to her previous lifestyle. Until the underlying needs of each of the family members are understood by all, the family members cannot find solutions that will work for everyone. In this example, a temporary transfer to a respite facility until Mrs. O’s health improved would be much more acceptable to her than a permanent change. Bringing services into the home could also prove an acceptable solution.

Mary B. is another example. Mary lives near Mom and Dad and is now their primary support. Despite having a family of her own and a full-time job, she makes the time to help Mom and Dad with grocery shopping, meals, bill paying, housecleaning and more. Mary is a high school graduate while older brother Joe, who lives in another state and rarely visits, has a graduate degree and has always treated his baby sister as just that – the baby of the family. It seems whenever Mary tries to discuss anything concerning Mom and Dad with Joe, Joe keeps offering suggestions that Mary views as being of no help. In Mary’s view, Joe is not listening and not contributing. But Mary believes Joe has never listened to her so she has difficulty believing that he would do so now. Does he really feel that Baby Sis can’t know what she is talking about? Perhaps Joe does appreciate Mary but doesn’t understand the stress that she’s under and the type of help she really needs. Maybe instead of offering suggestions, what Mary really needs from Joe is gratitude and the simple recognition of her efforts. Left to their usual means of communication, it may be difficult for them to get to a meaningful level of understanding.

If you find your family in a similar position, consider using a trained and experienced neutral moderator or mediator to help work through the emotions and to make difficult conversations productive.

Joyce Koria Hayes, Esq., is the Executive Director, Secretary and Mediator at Delaware Elder Mediation Services, Inc., located at 273 E. Main Street, Newark, DE. For more information on dealing with aging loved ones, or if you have a question for Joyce, call her at 302-287-9149 or email

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