The Wrong Signals: Shutting Down Change Before It Starts

How do we help our aging parents consider making positive changes in their lives? We want to help, and feel we have good ideas that could improve their quality of life. For example, we would like for them to consider:

New support services to enhance their “aging in place” environment
New lifestyle changes to protect and improve their health
New living accommodations to put more fun back to their lives as well as reduce isolation and loneliness
New long-term care options to better prepare them for major setbacks

But many times our attempts to discuss these and other “change topics” are met with extreme push back that includes indifference, rejection, and hostility. Despite the constant media prompting to have “the talk” with our aging parents and despite our best intentions, we wind up sending out the wrong signals that are show stoppers instead of conversation starters. Why is this happening and what can make it better?

An extremely valuable book written for healthcare professionals may hold the part of the answer. It is called Motivational Interviewing in Health Care: Helping Patients Change Behavior. The authors offer new insights and strategies for discussing change topics in a clinical medicine setting. It appears that their approach could be equally useful to adult children of aging parents. Here are some highlights from the book that seem especially relevant for all caregivers.

The Change Dilemma

It doesn’t matter how obvious it seems that change would make things markedly better for our aging parents; it is hard for everyone, period. There is a deep inertia to change that anchors all of us to what we have always done. With aging parents, there is the added inertia to change that comes from their developmental need to maintain control in a world where all control is being lost. Change is a threat to control and is viewed with suspicion. So it is unrealistic and impractical to assume our aging parents will suddenly be “change friendly” just because they are older and have glaring issues that could benefit from something new. But as Motivational Interviewing in Health Care so effectively points out, the real six-hundred-pound-gorilla in all of these conversations is the quagmire of ambivalence.


The insights and practical advice on ambivalence alone is worth the price of Motivational Interviewing in Health Care. It turns out that ambivalence lurks behind all change conversations and can be provoked by our attempts to argue away our parents objections to change. These are those unsolicited lectures we give our aging parents to inform or direct them to do something different. I call this all to common habit of adult children the “better answer” syndrome. This is code for “I know what’s best, please pay attention.”

But instead of consensus, it only provokes the dreaded righting-reflex that entrenches our aging parents into arguing against the suggested change, moving the conversation from uncomfortable to communication gridlock. Thankfully, the authors offer an effective, non-intuitive approach to work around this all too common dilemma.

Change Rapport

Motivational Interviewing in Health Care makes it clear that our goal is to avoid triggering the righting reflex and make an honest effort to understand our aging parent’s point of view. This involves finding out what they are actually experiencing and then signal that we are listening and get it. Within this non-triggering conversation environment, we can begin to test open-ended questions about issues where change might be useful to increase long-term control. Here are some simple examples:

How are you doing?
What’s worrying you most today?
What do you think would make this better?
How have you been feeling?
Tell me more…
What’s new with your friends?
What do you feel like doing?

Open-ended question invite our aging parents to choose the direction of the conversation. Once they pick the direction, we simply reflect back their thoughts and comments to indicate we are listening and understand their point of view. Although tempting, we need to resist the temptation to interrupt. Interruptions only make matters worse. We need to hear the whole story on a topic. But as the authors point out, we are listening for more than the story. We are listening for “change talk.”

This may be the most important benefit caregivers receive from reading Motivational Interviewing in Health Care. Change talk is where aging parents begin to voice some interest in change. It is a soft signal, more a preliminary musing about what if, wouldn’t be nice, I really need to, it would be better if, and I am sure I can, all examples of change talk phrasing. The most important thing about change talk is that our aging parents are exploring the other side of their ambivalence to change, speculating on how or why it might be worth considering. How we respond to these pre-change-exchanges will have an enormous impact on whether or not change actually occurs.

Motivational Interviewing in Health Care offers a detailed explanation and ample examples of how to develop these moments of change talk into positive changes. Despite its focus on clinical encounters for healthcare providers, it offers adult children a compassionate and effective strategy to explore change topics in a non-threatening, parent-centric style. It is an approach could be a game changer for adult children searching for a new way to help their aging parents make positive changes.

One response to “The Wrong Signals: Shutting Down Change Before It Starts

  1. There’s no doubt that th emajority of seniors are resistant to change. in fact, most middle-aged people are too. Heck, even young adults! You make good points though on how to compassionately work your way into the conversation. Thanks for a good read.

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