[How To] Keep your joy even when the older adult in your life isn’t joyful

It’s one thing to occasionally tolerate . . . A long-time friend who lives five states away complaining on the phone a few times a year; or that person at work with the persistent frown lines and stream of “glass-half-empty” news. 

It’s another thing to stay joyful . . . when that person who is all negative, all the time, is in your family circle. 

Maybe it’s your dad and he lives with you. 
Maybe it’s your mom who you regularly talk to or visit. 
Maybe it is an in-law who is in pain and finds it hard to endure.

It’s not that you believe their perspective is unwarranted, it’s that it is truly hard to stay joyful around someone who has a “glass-is-always-empty” perspective. You are committed to maintaining your relationship with them, so what can you do to manage your response to someone else’s negativity so that your own happiness doesn’t get sucked out of you? 

Five Joy Strategies

1. Shift the conversation

One author says: “You have to practice who you want to be.” If you are trying to help practice a positive attitude, a tool is often helpful. For example, if you share time together like over a meal, start a tradition of asking: “What are you thankful for today?” Go back and forth several times. Or even just a simple game of: “What do you like better X or X?” (Insert two different choices in the same category, like mountains or beach, cake or pie, sweet or savory, blue or orange, etc.) It’s sort of silly, but it takes the focus to “what is liked better”.

2. Let them know how you feel (and know that they may not change)

Consider that they may not realize how much they complain and gently bring it to their attention. You might say something like, “Dad, I know life isn’t easy for you right now. I love you so much and if I could make everything better I would. Hearing you complain makes me feel so sad. Would you be willing to try to be more positive when we talk?” It’s okay to share your experience and ask for what you need. If they don’t respond with change, let it go and focus on what you can control, which is how you respond. 

3. You can’t change them

Especially if you are in some sort of care role you are likely accustomed to solving things for them. Try not to take their negativity personally and avoid self talk that says, “They’d be happy if I could just fix ___”. Some part of you knows that you cannot solve everything. Remember the truth of that and be gentle with yourself. 

4. Use compassion and curiosity

While you are being gentle with yourself, remember to be gentle with them too. If you can shift from a lens of frustration to compassionate curiosity it can allow you to support and understand them better. Try to have empathy for the older adult’s season of life which may be more and more defined by loss: less good health, less mobility, finite finances, loss of friends to sickness or retirement moves. It can also be understandably hard to be positive when dealing with physical pain, especially chronic pain. You can ask: “On a scale of 1-10, where is your pain today?”

5. Help them feel heard

Try using the reflective listening technique—where you repeat back what you’ve heard. It shows that you are with them and have heard their words. Focus on how the situation has made them feel, since it’s usually the resulting feeling that is at the root of the issue anyway. If your emotions start to get the best of you, take a moment (and a deep breath) and remind yourself that their feelings don’t have to be yours.