Written by Sarah Brown, BS, RN, LNHA
Executive Director, Empira
Have you ever wondered why some conversations are harder than others? Like when people get nervous for a marriage proposal…even when they know the person is going to say yes. Or, on the other hand, people get nervous to break up with someone. These conversations are difficult because they are important to us and we think:
- What will the other person think or say?
- What if they get emotional?
- What if I offend them?
- What if I get emotional?
- What if they think less of me?
- What if I get don’t get the answer I hoped for?
The similarity in these scenarios is vulnerability and uncertainty. Our brain is wired to protect us from these feelings so we might start to rehearse over and over in our head or we might talk to a trusted and close confidant to gain the courage for the conversation. If we are unable to face the vulnerability and uncertainty, we might decide to skip the conversation all together or put it off for another day…
The longer we hold back these important conversations with our loved ones we miss opportunities for connection. We also carry the weight of things unsaid. Overtime it can cost us our peace and if we wait too long, we regret never having the conversation. However, when we do find the courage to speak up the risk is often worth the reward.
Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, found that “staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” Even though conversations may be difficult if we avoid them, we avoid connection. Connection is required for relationships and relationships are among the most important things in life. It is probably no surprise research overwhelming demonstrates relationships have a positive impact on the aging experience. In fact, relationships have been found to be one of the strongest determinants of health and wellness for older adults.
As an aging service professional, I have seen how facing late life can be a very vulnerable time for older adults and their loved ones. I have seen how avoidance of vulnerable conversations has led to disconnection, damaged relationships, stress, depression, anxiety, shame, regret, difficult deaths, and tarnished memories of lives well lived. I have also seen how courage to have vulnerable conversations can strengthen and enrich relationships. I have seen it heal broken relationships. I have seen it unleash an urgency for meaningful and purposeful living. I have seen how it has provided a sense of hope, peace, and acceptance.
I believe we can transform the aging experience by increasing the resources and opportunities to drive meaningful connection throughout the lifespan, all the way to end. In order to do this, we need to challenge the status quo that avoids vulnerable conversations about inevitable aging and mortality, perhaps it is where we might find our deepest connections and wisdom about what really matters.
Empira is currently working to increase opportunities for connection through vulnerable late life conversations in a grant project titled ResoLute. ResoLute proactively provides a sacred space, time, and guided resources for conversations and reflections to confront and talk about vulnerable topics related to aging and inevitable mortality such as health condition, life story, purpose, relationships, spirituality, end of life wishes, and legacy. We have titled these conversations the Work of Aging. It is called work for a reason; getting older is difficult and it takes courage to work through these conversations.
One way to help promote the courage needed to have Work of Aging conversations is to normalize them. As the older adults in your life start to bring up these kinds of topics, give them space and even encourage them to keep talking.
If you are interested in having Work of Aging conversations but still not sure how to bring up the questions check out our Connection and Reflection journal.