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Legal-Ease: An Attorney’s Perspective: Empathy — Not Explanations

By April 15, 2022May 3rd, 2022No Comments

Judd Matsunaga, Esq.

It’s a transition no one looks forward to and most haven’t prepared for: the time when you might have to start helping your aging parent. Maybe you’re starting to see problems with memory, such as forgetfulness or asking the same questions repeatedly. Or, maybe you’ve noticed trouble with driving, keeping up the house, managing stairs or paying bills.

It’s scary and stressful when it happens … noticing changes in your parent and becoming increasingly worried about his/her health and safety. Some aging parents simply begin to seem more withdrawn. Others start acting paranoid, e.g., claiming someone took or moved something, or leveling accusations at others.

Whatever it is, you know something’s wrong. You wonder about Alzheimer’s disease. You want to help, and you want your aging parent to accept help. Although helping an older parent can be gratifying, it can be especially hard if your parent is resisting your efforts, refusing to make changes or otherwise blowing off your concerns.

I get it — your parents took care of you growing up. Now, it’s your turn to take care of them. Unfortunately, most aging parents don’t welcome such help from their adult children. They may see it as interference or an invasion of privacy. Some parents might even refuse to accept that they are having difficulties, despite issues that feel glaringly obvious — and concerning — to you.

Demonstrating empathy is key to helping elderly parents

Many (if not most) adult children make the mistake of trying to reason with the aging parent. But explanations and reasoning don’t work when there’s memory loss. Brain function is damaged and isn’t able to understand your explanations. With most forms of memory loss, insight and judgment are impaired, but emotional responses are not.

So, what happens is that all of your reasoning and explanations (however brilliant) are not understood, i.e., there’s a lack of understanding. However, what does happen is negative feelings, e.g., embarrassment, resentment and being afraid, ashamed, angry, threatened. The result is a lack of cooperation, conflict and relationship stress.

Rather than trying to get them to understand, you need to work on understanding them, and helping them feel understood. Your parent needs empathy, not explanations. “Demonstrating empathy and understanding is the key to positive interactions with your aging parent,” said care manager Katie Darling. She suggests “letting your loved one know you are their advocate for better or worse, rather than another opponent or obstacle.”

When attempting to help aging parents, we may accidentally say things that make them upset or disrespected. To make conversations more positive while still achieving the goal of helping them, shares an online article that offers help: “7 Things You Should Never Say to Your Aging Parents”:

  1. “You always tell me the same story!” You might be thinking, “You’re repeating yourself … again!” but your aging parent hears, “I don’t care to listen to something you care enough to share.” To prevent from hearing the same stories over and over, ask leading questions that might elicit a different story from your parent. And try to stick to positive or happy topics, rather than a loved one’s passing or other negative memories.
  2. “You need to use a cane/walker!” Many older adults want to avoid using a cane or walker for fear the appliance makes them look old or frail. Even people in their 80s will say, “Walkers are for old people, and I’m not old yet!” Help your parents avoid hazards by explaining that you’re worried they might fall and suffer a serious injury and that using a cane or walker can prevent that from happening.
  3. “You shouldn’t live alone anymore.” To older persons, this statement is a sign that their independence is in jeopardy. And they’re likely to become obstinate or combative whenever the topic of moving to assisted living or a family member’s home arises. Instead, try expressing your feelings of concern and then working together to find a solution. For example, say, “I’m really worried that living alone could mean something could happen to you and no one would be there to help you.”
  4. “You’re too old to drive.” Relinquishing the car keys can be one of the toughest parts of aging. This is a very difficult subject and may require the help of a third party like the person’s doctor, physical therapist or other professional to explain that it’s safest for everyone if the older person no longer operates a vehicle. Saving that harsh reality for a nonfamily member will help preserve the elder’s relationship with loved ones.
  5. “You never feel good.” It’s common for older people to frequently turn — or start — conversations toward the topic of their failing health. A better response to this popular conversation topic is allowing a limited time for the older person to “vent” about his or her health, demonstrating your compassion and then redirecting them. After stating you’re sorry they’re in pain or have to deal with managing multiple medicines, ask about a positive memory or experience.
  6. “I can’t believe you missed that appointment.” Scolding an elderly person as if they were a naughty child is demeaning and disrespectful. It breaks trust and can lead to passive-aggressive behavior such as “forgetting” to tell children things they should know because the senior does not want their child to boss them around. You can also help ensure that your parent sticks to his or her health care appointments by offering to take them to the next one.
  7. “You don’t need a jacket today; it’s warm outside.” Many older people are more sensitive to temperatures and feel cooler than those around them who are younger. If your dad insists on wearing a warm jacket when it’s 75 degrees, gently explain that it’s warmer out than he might expect. Then, suggest a lighter jacket or shirt, rather than the heavy one he’s selected, as it might be best at keeping him comfortable. And don’t be afraid to offer help choosing the best outerwear.

Judd Matsunaga is the founding attorney of Elder Law Services of California, a law firm that specializes in Medi-Cal Planning, Estate Planning and Probate. He can be contacted at (310) 348-2995 or The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Pacific Citizen or constitute legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such.