As awesome as it is going to be for families to get together in person—seeing loved ones in person—some will experience shock, a real punch to the gut.

I can almost hear the phone conversations between and among the siblings soon after the New Year.

Does Mom seem frail to you? More forgetful?
Did you see the refrigerator? The bathroom?
When was the last time the dog had a bath?
Does it seem to you that Dad is drinking more?
Did you notice that the car has more dings and dents? When was the oil changed?
All that unopened mail!

Once the worst of the shock has passed, this is not the time to move from discussion to action.

There is too much danger of seeing the people as problems to be solved. There are problems, for sure, AND there are people involved. A person is not a problem to be solved.

Anyone who has worked with me has heard umpteen times “language shapes perception.” This is especially true in all caregiving situations. Changes can be alarming; for example, parents whose health and circumstances have deteriorated: changes in cognition; the ability to get around; the ability to maintain their living space.

Alarm bells go off! What are we going to do about mom and dad? As a care manager, I get some of those phone calls. So here’s where language comes in. When someone says we (including siblings) need to do something about mom or dad I cringe inside.

It all hinges on the one word—about. In a not-so-subtle way, the people have become a problem to be solved. Can you hear the difference? Doing something about Mom vs. doing something about getting the house clean or the dog walked.

We attend to things. We work with people.

Another gripe is when people say my loved one or your loved one. Very common on senior care websites. We don’t own each other. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Why is this a problem?  Because we can only own things. When we describe another person in terms of ownership (my, mine) that makes the person a thing. No rights. No responsibilities.

We do belong to each other. That’s the miracle!  Belonging not ownership!

You can say: okay, Peg, what’s the big deal here? You’re only talking about semantics. To which I say: how do these statements resonate with you?

  • I don’t know what to do about my Mom. 
    • I am very concerned about my mother’s situation with respect to these problem areas.
    • Mom, I want to work with you to solve these problems.
  • We can help you find a living situation for your loved one.
    • We can work with you and the person you love to find a living situation that addresses both of your concerns.

If it was you who was the topic of these fraught conversations, which languaging would you prefer?