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Difficult conversations in later life

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A little more conversation: why it’s good to talk if you’re worried about someone

It’s not always easy, but an honest conversation can be vital if someone’s struggling in later life.

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"I am starting to worry a bit about him," says Gemma, about her grandad, Colin, who's in his late 80s. "It's getting to the point where the house seems like it's too much for him to cope with."

Colin's lived alone since his wife died five years ago, but more recently Gemma's noticed him struggling to keep up with household jobs. When she's suggested getting a cleaner in to help, Colin's shut down the conversation, saying he doesn't want someone he doesn't know in the house.

"What I'd really like to talk to him about is moving," says Gemma. "He's told me he's not happy in his house now. I've wondered if he might prefer living in sheltered accommodation – somewhere smaller, where there are more people around to help when he needs it. But I don't know how to start that conversation."

It's good to talk – but that doesn't make it easy

Gemma's not alone. Age UK's Advice line regularly receives calls from people who are worried about an older friend, relative, or even their own partner, but aren't sure how to raise their concerns – or whether they should say anything at all.

"It can be so difficult to say to someone 'I'm worried about you'," says Lesley Carter, Age UK's Clinical Lead. "You don't want to charge in and imply someone can't take care of themselves, or offend them by making it seem like you're checking up on them."

Lesley suggests taking a step back and assessing your worries as objectively as possible.

"Things do naturally change as we get older," she advises. "Someone might not have as much interest in activities they used to enjoy, or they might not have exactly the same personality as when they were younger. But if you're noticing changes in someone's behaviour that are concerning you – like someone refusing to leave the house – or you're worried they're in a situation that might not be good for them, it's a great idea to talk to them about it, but in a way that helps you to see things from their perspective as well as yours."

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Understanding how older people feel in difficult situations

Age UK recently conducted research to find out more about how older people, their families and the professionals working with them feel when someone is showing signs they're struggling to cope. One of the main things we learned was the importance of listening as well as talking, and how more open conversations might help people to make decisions that felt right to them.

"A very clear message from the research was the importance of recognising individual choices and circumstances," says Age UK's Su Ray, who was involved in the research.

"Living in an untidy house might seem totally out of character to a loved one but it might be the 'new normal' for someone who doesn't have the energy to be as house-proud as they were. Being too quick to diagnose the problem, without taking time to understand the issues, can make someone anxious about losing control. As a result, they might become defensive, seeming uncooperative or unwilling to accept help."

Find out more about Age UK's research, 'Struggling to cope'

This project explored what life is like for older people who show signs of struggling in various aspects of their lives.

Support to start an open conversation

As a result of this research, Age UK has developed a series of webpages designed to help anyone who is worried about someone to take a step back and assess their worries, think about the perspective of the person they are concerned about, and then open up a conversation with them.

"Lots of us don't feel as confident when we're trying to talk about sensitive or uncomfortable topics, especially if it's with someone like a parent, aunt or uncle who once took care of us," says Su. "We're not telling people what to say, but we hope we can give them some things to think about so they feel more prepared to talk openly. And a big part of that talk is going to be listening – and understanding what the other person has to say, even if we don't like it."

Being free to make our own choices

It's that issue of hearing people out – especially if we don't agree with what they're saying – that can be the hardest for concerned families or friends to come to terms with. But it's vital people's choices are respected.

"Unless someone lacks mental capacity – meaning they're unable to understand or make decisions – a person has the right to live their life however they choose, even if to other people it might seem unwise," explains Lesley.

One man we spoke to through our research told us he was well aware that his behaviour had become harmful to this health – but he wasn't interested in changing.

"I'm at the age now where I've had a good innings so I'm not very bothered," he told us. "I've got to 80. Lots of people who I know who are a lot younger than me – they've died. It's no good worrying, is it? It's a waste of time. I'm happy as I am."

Should that man's family or friends respect his decision? Yes. But should they also feel they can talk to him about it? We certainly think so.

Support to have a conversation with someone you're worried about

Age UK’s information on how to start difficult conversations can help you decide what to do if you’re worried about an older person and want to talk to them about it.

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Last updated: Apr 29 2019

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