The One Phrase We Should Stop Saying to Our Aging Parents

Only a few years ago your parents were independent people enjoying retirement, grandkids and even running by Costco to pick you up some much-needed toilet paper. Now, they’re so much more reliant on you, their child—albeit grown-up child—and no one seems too happy about it.

This transition in life phases and role reversals can be difficult for everyone involved. Frustration can come to a boil, especially as we lose our patience, which, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, warns is one of the first virtues to go out the window as we juggle our new reality.

“Yes, it can be hard to have continued patience when you have to repeat stories you just told your parents that they forgot or seemingly simple things like how to put a cell phone on speaker, but exercise patience, restraint and kindness before making caustic remarks,” cautions Dr. Hafeez.

…Which is why there’s one super common phrase we need to rethink when it comes to communicating with our aging parents.

The one phrase to stop saying: “You’re not allowed to drive anymore.”

Even if your parent/s should not be driving at this stage, approaching the subject without empathy can be a massive blow to your parent’s self-esteem in a time that is already rife with challenges and changes. “Aging and elderly parents do not want to feel like helpless infants,” says Dr. Hafeez. And too often, adult children will lose their cool and say something like, “You’re a horrible and dangerous driver now, and we are taking your keys.” It’s not only not constructive, but it can be traumatic and make your parents feel powerless.

What to say instead: “Can we devise a plan together for alternate transportation?”

Per Dr. Hafeez, you might want to preface this with some of your thinking, like, “There are some really crazy drivers on the road, it can be hard to see at night, and we are concerned you might get lost.” By focusing on their safety instead of their failures, Dr. Hafeez explains, they can still feel like they are part of the conversation. “If they are lucid and do not have Alzheimer’s, talking to them in a way that presents choices is helpful—as opposed to giving ultimatums and making them feel that they have no say in their lives.” You can even sandwich the conversation by highlighting things they still excel at and praise and compliment them without seeming demeaning.

The goal is not to punish your parents for aging, but to care for them as they do.