The 40/70 Rule: Intergenerational Conversations

By Carolyn Lucz, ARPF Board Member

There comes a time when children may need to take on the role of a parent.  It can be prompted by a crisis in the family due to a death of one parent, or simply by the realization that a parent’s health is declining.  It can be as minor as considering extra help in the home, or as life changing as selling the family home and looking for an assisted living facility.

Often, the time to broach touchy subjects seems to come suddenly; however, upon reflection, often there have been signs that should have prompted a discussion. Maybe you’ve noticed that your 78-year-old mother finds it hard to remember the names of her grandchildren, or forgets to feed her beloved pet.  Perhaps she has been leaving the television and radio on night and day, and subscribes to the daily newspaper but can’t read it because of failing eyesight.

And instead of asking what she wants to do about these situations or if she’s thought about what would be a help to her, you might tend to state what you see as the problem and offer ready-made solutions.

Fearing the loss of independence, a parent may reject any assistance out of hand.  How do you talk with your mom and dad about driving, dating and financial matters?  Here’s where the 40/70 Rule can open communication between baby boomers and their parents.

Dr. Jake Harwood, professor of communications at the University of Arizona, has developed a guide outlining seven tips to communication.  The following suggestions can pave the way for better intergenerational communication and more fulfilling relationships.

Seven Tips to Help Boomer Children Communicate With Their Aging Parents

1. GET STARTED. If you’re 40 or your parents are 70, it’s time to start observing and gathering information carefully and thoughtfully. Don’t reach a conclusion from a single observation and decide on the best solution until you have gathered information with an open mind and talked to your parents.

2. TALK IT OUT. Approach your parents with conversation. Discuss what you’ve observed and ask your parents what they think is going on. If your parents acknowledge the situation, ask what they think would be good solutions. If your parents don’t recognize the problem, use concrete examples to support your case.

3. SOONER IS BETTER. Talk sooner rather than later when a crisis has occurred. If you know your loved one has poor eyesight or has trouble driving at night, begin to address those issues before a problem arises.

4. FORGET THE BABY TALK. Remember you are talking to an adult, not a child. Patronizing speech or baby talk will put older adults on the defensive and convey a lack of respect for them. Put yourself in your parents’ shoes and think of how you would want to be addressed in the situation.

5. MAXIMIZE INDEPENDENCE. Always try to move toward solutions that provide the maximum amount of independence for the older person. Look for answers that optimize strengths and compensate for problems. For instance, if your loved one needs help at home, look for tools that can help them maintain their strengths. Professional caregiving services provide assistance in a number of areas including meal preparation, light housekeeping or medication reminders. Or find friends that can help.

6. BE AWARE OF THE WHOLE SITUATION. If your dad dies and soon afterward your mom’s house seems to be in disarray, it’s probably not because she suddenly became ill. It’s much more likely to stem from a lack of social support and the loss of a life-long relationship. Make sure that your mom has friends and a social life.

7. ASK FOR HELP. Many of the issues of aging can be solved by providing parents with the support they need to continue to maintain their independence. Resources such as Area Agencies on Aging and local senior centers can help provide those solutions.

Ed. note: Senior Companion Programs can also help by keeping your loved one company and independent for as long as possible by providing some of the support and services that are mentioned above. 

Harwood developed the 40/70 Rule, based on real-life experiences, for Home Instead Senior Care.  He is also the author of the book, “Understanding Communication and Aging.”

 Home Instead Senior Care research reveals that nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. have a major communication obstacle with their parents that stems from the continuation of the parent-child role.  The fact that many of these families still operate according to a parent-child model rather than a peer-to-peer one makes these conversations particularly difficult. 

For more information about the 40/70 Rule campaign, visit the Web site   A copy of the guide can be downloaded from the site, or by calling 843-842-3372.


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