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Practical Guidance for Loving Your Challenging Parent

Caregiving for parents or loved ones as they age comes with myriad new challenges. You want to be there for their wants, but also you must address their needs. This juxtaposition of needs and wants can become challenging if your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, which can put unprecedented strain on the relationship. So how do we accept the challenge and grow alongside our parents during this transition?

Using new tools and techniques is one of the first factors of successful relationship building as we age. Understanding that we must grow alongside our parents reframes the challenge as a collaborative effort – as opposed to assuming the traditional conflict-maker and solution-provider roles. By reexamining our new roles in the relationship, we can begin to understand that our so-called “difficult” parents have new sets of needs and wants as they enter a new stage in their lives.

“I want these adult children with a difficult older parent to learn how to protect their own heart and not be so hurt by Mom or Dad’s unpleasant behaviors,” notes Dr. Paul K. Chafetz, a psychologist, author and educator.

The Classic Six vs. the Cognitive Six

Dr. Chafetz explains that challenging parents often fall into two categories: “the classic six” or “the cognitive six.” The classic six refers to parents who have always been difficult throughout their lives. Attributes such as intrusiveness, laziness, blaming, dishonesty, irresponsibility and an innocent facade can often be connected to parents who have always maintained a difficult persona.

On the other hand, some parents only become difficult when they begin to experience cognitive decline, which is the cognitive six according to Dr. Chafetz. Strong indicators include repetitiveness, restlessness, wandering, delusions, aggressiveness and withdrawal. By simply identifying in which category your parent belongs, you can begin to develop techniques that will help you and your parent maintain a positive relationship.

Intentional Vagueness

Dr. Chafetz explains that most arguments with a difficult parent stem from trying to answer questions or demands too directly. Instead, he recommends using vagueness to your advantage. When a parent is not rooted in reality, using logic to persuade him or her simply will not work. For example, if your mother who can no longer drive states that she will be going on a drive later that week, try using ambiguity and redirection instead of immediately shutting down the idea. Try asking when she last saw her car or where she plans on going on her drive. These easily implemented redirection techniques can help you avoid pointless disputes which can only further inhibit the relationship and stifle communication.

Growing into Challenges

Growing together is essential in any relationship, but that is especially true in those relationships with a parent facing cognitive decline and an adult child struggling to understand the changes that come with that. Reframe this challenge to communicate as an opportunity for new understanding and a way to lean on the relationship foundation you have already fostered.

“Whatever adjustment life is asking us to make, we can and should grow into it,” says Dr. Chafetz.

If you’d like to learn more about the cognitive changes you might be noticing with your parents and help prepare for your family’s future, take our survey, “Is this dementia?”