As they get older, they often need to get some long-held things off their chest

By Linda Bernstein

“I felt guilty every day of my life that I was able to have children and Lilly wasn’t,” my 80-year-old mother confided, quietly, more than a little choked up.

Lilly was Mom’s older, much beloved cousin whose lack of offspring had always been a matter of whispered speculation among the relatives of my generation. There was talk of a botched abortion, something that would have been positively scandalous in 1940. Even when “the kids” grew up, it would not have been divulged.

(MORE: Family Secrets: Is There a Skeleton in Your Closet?)

My mother wasn’t revealing a family secret. It wasn't the reason for Lilly’s childless state that was troubling her. She was sharing with me a feeling that had haunted her for decades. What could I say that would be helpful? I pondered that a moment before I opened my mouth.

I said what I knew to be true: “You adored Lilly. All of us kids loved her, too. I’m sure she knew how much you cared about her.”

For our elderly parents, “getting their house in order” often involves more than consulting with a tax attorney or an estate planner, says Ken Druck, author of The Real Rules of Life. As people age, many reach a stage where they are no longer concerned that we will judge them, so they confide feelings that remained unvoiced for years. “There comes a point where they feel intimate enough with us as adults that they can share unknown truths about their emotional lives,” Druck says.

Seeing Parents in a New Light

These conversations have the potential to help us see our parents in a new light and forge a deeper connection with them. The trick, of course, is knowing how to respond to door-opening revelations that may shake us a bit.

“In almost all cases, no matter what you really feel, it’s best to lead off with a response that enables your parent to unburden him or herself even further,” Druck advises. Lend a good ear. Ask open-ended questions. Avoid sarcasm. There really are some monumental things our aging mothers and fathers want us to know. These disclosures may improve our relationships with them -- and their lives.

(MORE: 8 Things Not to Say to Your Aging Parents)

8 Ways Our Parents Might Spill the Beans

Sometimes they’re aware they’re dropping little bombs; other times their motivation could be unconscious. Either way, our job is to be non-reactive and supportive and remember that their confession is more about them than us.

Confession 1: “When you were little, I loved your brother more than I loved you.” Even though parents say things like “I love all of you the same,” it’s common for parents to feel differently toward each of their children. As long as they don’t overtly show favoritism, the family dynamic isn’t necessarily unhealthy.

Don’t say: “Really? Well, I love Dad more than you!”
Say instead: “Why are you telling me this now? Is there something else you want me to know?” Druck says elderly parents frequently bring up emotionally charged issues for reasons that may not be immediately evident, so give them an opportunity to get to the heart of the matter. If their admission unleashes emotions that are too painful for you to process in the moment, tell them this hurts you or makes you uncomfortable. Don’t get into recriminations that will throw grease on the flames of a potential conflict -- but if you're open to it, initiate a conversation about how your parent feels about you and your siblings' different personalities and ask if there's anything deeper they'd like to discuss.

Confession 2: “I really miss sex.” These four words actually convey two messages. First of all, touch is a basic human need -- sex is often as much about the cuddling as it is about intercourse. Perhaps your parent is revealing a deep loneliness. Second, seniors are often a lot friskier than we may imagine.

Don’t say: “TMI!!!”
Say instead: “I can understand that.” Druck thinks parents divulge information like this when they feel close to their adult children -- in other words, when we become trusted companions. If you haven’t discussed sex with your parents since “the talk” 40 or so years ago, this may be the time. You don’t have to share your own sex stories; just listen. And if you learn that the underlying emotion is loneliness, suggest things he or she might do to deal with that.

Confession 3: “It makes me angry that I’m ‘invisible’ to so many people.” It is shocking the kinds of things people say about the elderly right in front of them, as if they can’t hear and feel. This disrespectful behavior infantilizes our aging parents.

Don’t say: “Just ignore it.”
Say instead: “You are extremely visible to me, and I will do my best to make sure others treat you appropriately.” If your parent is in an assisted-living or nursing home, Druck says, it’s perfectly appropriate to take this up with the management. Workers there have to recognize that even if someone needs help getting from one end of the room to the other, her brain might still be sharp and her feelings may be hurt if attendants and visitors make derogatory comments. If your aging parents are still living on their own, help them feel more included. Our parents have a lifetime of experience and knowledge. At gatherings, encourage them to tell stories or give their opinions.

Confession 4: “I had an abortion when I was 19, and I still feel guilty.”

Don’t say: “What’s the big deal?” Attitudes toward abortion -- though still a highly contentious issue -- have altered significantly since the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, historian Ricki Sollinger says, people accepted the conventional “wisdom” that held that “women must passively receive and submit to the ‘gifts’ of marriage, especially pregnancy.”
Say instead: “Mom, that was a long time ago, and you were still a child. How can I help you forgive yourself?” Even if you privately believe abortion is wrong, you need to be empathetic. Let her know that you understand she probably felt unimaginable societal pressure. If she is afraid of consequences of her “sin” after she dies, guide her toward pastoral counseling. Or, if the subsequent conversation indicates she still thinks a lot about the child she might have had, suggest a different kind of therapy.

Confession 5: “No one knows I’m taking tango lessons.”

Don’t say: “Aren’t you a little old to be doing that?”
Say instead: “Wow. I’m impressed. But why aren’t you telling anyone?” We all have passions -- for music, movies, books and even the tango. When people are shy or inhibited about discussing the thing they love to do, sometimes they’ll keep it secret to avoid negative reactions. But when your parent opens a door to his or her “inner” life, walk right through. It's wonderful that your parent has found fun way to be active -- and wants to share it with you. (By the way, dance is a terrific form of therapy for seniors.)

(MORE: Are You Bullying Your Aging Parents?)

Confession 6: “I used to think I needed to see a psychiatrist because I had lots of anxiety attacks, but I was too ashamed to go.” Even today, stigma surrounds psychotherapy and people are afraid of being labeled “mentally ill.”

Don’t say: “Sure. Then everyone would've known how nutty this family was!”
Say instead: “Do you still feel anxious or troubled? If you do, you may want to tell your doctor -- or let me help you find a good psychotherapist.” Anxiety can be crippling and there is no need for an elderly person to be debilitated by this disorder. Sometimes, however, anxiety attacks dissipate when the triggers no longer exist. Your parent may be asking you for help or confiding something simply to let you know more about her inner life.

Confession 7: “I still worry about you -- a lot.” While we might prefer our parents not expend energy uselessly, worrying is what mothers and fathers do. It may feel bothersome, but it is probably an expression of love.

Don’t say: “Well, you can stop.”
Say instead: “I know how much you care about me.” Druck recommends not “jumping into the worry pond.” Instead, before assuring parents there’s no reason to fret (as long as that’s true), let them know how much you appreciate their love -- even if all their worrying can get exasperating because you are, you know, a grownup.

Confession 8: “Your mom and I would have gotten divorced, but we stayed together because of you and your siblings.” You probably realized on some level that your parents’ marriage isn't or wasn’t happy, so a revelation like this usually doesn’t come as a total surprise. Before “no-fault” divorce laws, couples were more likely to stay in miserable marriages. The divorce rate actually doubled between 1960 and 1980 and recently has been spiking among people over 50. To this day researchers can’t agree whether and to what degree divorce hurts children.

Don't say: “I know and you made our lives miserable.”
Say instead: “Does that still make you sad?” Let your parents know that you sympathize with their predicament and will support them in any way they would like. The one thing not to do in this circumstance is take sides.

As our parents age, they are trying to be at peace with their lives. Druck believes that by listening and acknowledging their feelings, we can become “spiritual anchors” and improve the quality of their remaining years.

Read more on Next Avenue:

Talking to Your Aging Parent About Moving
Capturing Memories: A Photographer's Images of His Aging Parents
It's Not Too Late (or Too Soon) to Get Therapy

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  • Let The Person Speak

    When an ill person brings up subjects that make you feel uncomfortable, it's natural to want to squelch the discussion or rapidly change the subject. However, it's very important to listen unselfishly and avoid responding with, for example: "Let's not get into that right now. Can't we discuss something more pleasant?" or "Do you really think it's helpful to dwell on this topic?"

  • Know When To Say "I Don't Know"

    Whether the patient asks a spiritual or theological question that catches you off guard or she wants to know about the side effects of a medication, it helps to learn how to be noncommittal without seeming evasive. You don't want her to think that you don't care or that you're hiding something, and you definitely don't want to offer misinformation that might do more harm than good.

  • Don't Hesitate To Call In Spiritual Help

    Even for people who weren't very spiritual or religious throughout most of their lives, it's natural to experience spiritual anxiety during a serious illness. And it's also natural for this anxiety to lead to questions that caregivers might find difficult or even overwhelming. If your loved one asks, for instance, 'What's next? Will prayer help? Why did God let this happen to me?' it's best to call in a qualified cleric.

  • Let The Tears Flow (The Patient's And Yours, Too)

    Just as most of us are not comfortable with chronic illness, we are also not comfortable with crying. When tears appear, we tend to whip out a tissue and murmur something along the lines of, "It's okay. Don't cry." From now on, continue to pass the tissue when your ill loved one starts to tear up, but don't pressure him to stop sobbing. Tears are a natural emotional release for emotions ranging from anger to sadness to fear, and can be very therapeutic.

  • Resist The Urge To Spout Platitudes

    When your loved one is uncomfortable, upset, or worried, you might be tempted to utter platitudes like, "Everything will be okay," "I know how you feel," "God has given you a long life," or "It's God's will." While we hope that these phrases will be a quick fix to problems we'd rather not deal with, the truth is that they're trite and meaningless. What's more, sugarcoating reality doesn't fool most people, and it certainly doesn't spark positive change.

  • Respond Constructively To Anger

    Anger is a natural human emotion, and it's important to recognize that chronically ill people have a lot to potentially feel upset about. Understandably, many patients are angry that they are so sick. Plus, their pain and energy levels might make them less patient or less able to handle stressful situations. Therefore, it's not unusual for caregivers to be on the receiving end when their loved one's fuse blows for any reason.

  • Seek To Connect Heart To Heart

    Understanding how and why an illness is getting worse and more painful is intellectual. But experiencing it is a very visceral and emotional thing. The patient needs for you to connect with him on a heart-to-heart, gut-to-gut level, not just a mental one.