Handling Public Situations when an Aging Loved One Says Something Offensive

It’s been a long time since someone has told me, “Your husband must be so proud of you!” but it happened the other week.  I had just finished a presentation on the aging brain with 70 or more 70+ year olds. Several people took the time to talk with me afterward.  I explained that I wasn’t married. One woman piped in, “Her mama is proud of her!” Yes, she is, I agreed.  But the first woman wasn’t going to let the idea go and continued, “Well, I know you are going to meet a nice Christian man and he’s going to be so proud of you…”  I told her thank you which is leaps-and-bounds different than I would’ve handled this five years ago.

One of the deepest concerns I hear from friends and family is the frustration with an aging loved one who says things that could be taken as offensive.  This peaks in the summer when the weather makes it more likely for older adults and their kids to be out and about doing things together and completing home projects.  Depending on the family structure, it can come up again over the holidays. Adult kids often dread the next time their parent says something that irks them and leaves them with an emotional hangover.  And they handle more of these situations in the summer because of the seasonal concentrated time together.

My grandma — who was a spitfire, God rest her soul — was a pro at giving her opinions no matter who was in hearing vicinity.

“That Obama — I hear he’s a Muslim,” she told me late in the summer before the 2008 election.  The rumor was spreading through her very lovely (yet vanilla) assisted living building. We were supposed to be going out for lunch and she was watching some kind of news channel when I arrived.

“Grandma, we don’t know that that’s true,” I said, appalled that she’d repeat something like that.  “Let’s turn off the TV.”

As I grabbed the remote, a shot of Michelle Obama flashed on the screen.

“Well, that Michelle has a big you-know-what!”  And that was how we set the stage for going out to lunch — me cringing and her wondering what the big deal was about expressing her thoughts.

Whether it’s another person’s religion, the size of their body or race, even how much an establishment charges for a meal, it can all come up later in life depending on what we think and how we were raised.  To boot, especially if there’s hearing loss, these opinions also come out loud as a bullhorn. But why?  Because we’re family and you can say anything around family and we all think the same…Sure, maybe, until we don’t.  Then these microbursts of opinions shock and embarrass us.  For all the joy that the good weather of summer brings, those of us who are expected to help out more during this time find the sprinkled-in comments grating.

Every microburst of opinions is unique.  You can try to read the clouds but really, we don’t know when one is going to sneak up on us, like the woman who really wanted me to know I was going to marry a Christian man and he would be proud of me.  As a friend pointed out, from her point of view, it was probably pretty progressive to even suggest that a man would be comfortable with his wife giving public presentations. True — there’s always another side to the story.  But what do you do when you’re actually in the situation? It’s not always appropriate to say thank you.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had a family member so critical and opinionated later in life that they could make their friends cry or — far be it from me to assume — end up in the emergency room when their comments send someone into hysterics.  How many of us have known someone to comment on the body-size of the clerk helping them or the portions being large — “What kind of person eats this much food?!” — at the restaurant THEY insist on going to?

While some people can be just plain mean, in general, you don’t have to put up with the more caustic and embarrassing comments.  Shhh….Dad!  People can hear you! is not likely to change the situation.  Plus, it does nothing to maintain your relationship with the person who is the target of their comments.  So, here are some other ideas:

Simply say, “That’s inappropriate”.  I’ll just admit now that this is easier to do with someone else’s family than our own but it has a place.  It also confirms to the person who may have overheard the comment that, just because you’re with someone who said it, you do not agree.  I’m not sure that the person always realizes their comments are hurtful and, by not addressing the situation directly, the person will continue to think it’s okay.  Sure, they might pout if you stand up to them but that’s better than assuming someone can’t learn better manners later in life.

If it’s a topic that comes up regularly — especially regarding opinions around religion or race — you can always say, “That’s not a conversation I can have with you.”  Maybe you have a dear friend who is Muslim and your great-uncle has decided to put in his two cents about the U.S. immigration policy. Or maybe there are comments about which particular group appears to be using the emergency room.  Don’t go there.  Set a boundary and stick to it for your own protection.  You can say, “That’s not a conversation I can have with you. Let’s find something else to talk about.”

What about when there’s nothing you can do, time with the person is limited, and you’re out in public when your 90-year old friend decides she wants to sample (and then critique out-loud) all three kinds of gruyere at Whole Foods during the lunchtime rush hour?  You look over and people are glaring. You think she’s chosen one but then she asks to sample the first cheese she already tried to compare it to the last cheese, and the cheese-man behind the counter has to unwrap the first cheese he already put away. You mouth the word, Sorry to the other people.  That’s probably appropriate.  Or you can let your friend know people are waiting and she needs to hurry.  She might not care.  Or you can make a joke out of it: “I taught her that” is one of my favorites when anything awkward comes up.  Or, “I swear she’s made it her personal mission to teach me patience.” And if she asks what you’re talking to others about — tell her.  All these people are waiting in line so we need to hurry it up!  Use whichever phrase you think is best but don’t let it give you a hangover.

Sometimes we are so worried that we might offend someone who is older, we hide ourselves.  One of my favorite relationships is with a woman in her 90’s. Perhaps the same woman who wanted to try all three kinds of gruyere at Whole Foods.  She drives me nuts to the point where I’ve said to her, “I’m going to go now because you’re unhappy. I know you love me and I love you too so I promise I’ll come back tomorrow” or whenever I can make it back to her place.  I love her too much to let her ruin our relationship when she’s having a bad day and I don’t have the bandwidth. And then I come back.

Finally, write this stuff down.  Either because it will be touching someday to have a record or freeing to burn it later as a symbol of letting yourself free.

We all think we’ll be different when we’re older, never say anything to piss anyone off — but we just might.  Who knows how the accumulation of pain and loss will shake out, how our filters will change, what things will become taboo to say.  (By the way, I learned today that a substitute for “handicapped” — which literally means “cap in hand” as in someone begging — is “accessible”.  Let’s use that.)  The best hope is that someone will be around to tell us we’ve crossed the line, especially during those concentrated times in summer when someone is trying to help.

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Jill Eelkema

Having the right guidance as you or a loved one journey through life’s transitions makes a world of difference. Jill’s helped countless individuals and families work through major life changes with confidence and dignity. Her expertise in psychotherapy, care management, and facilitating tough conversations with family members will give you confidence and peace of mind no matter how tough life gets.

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