Are You Listening?

As our parents get older, we often  relate to them as if they were our children and we listen to them in that way. My mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s  and her conversations often revolve around a few topics, her need for a phone, an eye doctor appointment and another box of tissues. But ocasionally she says something quite profound and if I weren’t listening to her carefully I would miss it.

Being a good listener is a real art. Recently I took an excellent training course in Elder Mediation offered by Elder Decisions in Boston.  Sharon, an attorney from Maryland, who was in the course with me,  introduced me to some of the books written by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  She shared a book with me written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen  entitled “Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most”. In this book the authors describe the key skills to become a good listener.  I think we would all benefit from applying these skills to our conversations with our elderly parents.

The authors state that truly listening to another person transforms your relationship with them.  They suggest learning to listen “from the inside out” . In other words, listen with curiosity. Ask questions. Paraphrase what your parent says so they understand that you understand them. Listen for the feelings behind what they are saying and acknowledge them when you hear them.

But don’t let your conversation become an exercise in listening correctly. The heart of good listening is listening with authenticity. People will sense what’s going on inside you if you are not genuine. If your intentions are good the words you use are not that important.

The authors remind us that each of us has an internal voice, the voice inside our head that reports what we are thinking not what we are saying. This internal voice is constantly evaluating everything that is going on, including our words and actions and what the other person is saying. If we are not aware of this voice, it can create havoc with our attempts to listen to others authentically.

Listen to that internal voice in your head. What is it saying now? (“What me? I don’t have any internal voice”) Don’t turn off the voice but listen to it carefully.  How is it evaluating what the other person is saying? Get to know the kinds of things your internal voice is transmitting to you so they don’t interfere with your conversation.

Stay focused on  curiosity in your conversation with your parent. Remember that most people, especially elders, rarely perceive that anyone is actually  listening to them. And when they sense that you are authentically paying attention it will  open up their heart.

Are you a Swooper?

Are you a swooper? Do you have an elderly parent that is a long distance away? Occasionally you swoop in to see her in Connecticut from you office in Chicago. You come armed with a checklist of things that she needs to do and a pocketful of brochures describing places that she should move to.  If you manage the visit well, she might take advantage of some of your recommendations and make a few valuable changes to improve her situation. But if you don’t manage the situation well, you may leave after a few days, frustrated that she won’t listen to you and upset that she was crying when you walked out the door.

Our elderly parents don’t often choose to make changes quickly. They may need to think about their options and truly believe that it is in their best interest to do something. I remember when I was first concerned that my Mom was no longer safe living by herself in her home. The trips to the basement laundry with a hamper full of dirty clothes were becoming more and more precarious. But I was patient enough to  sit down and plant the seed that moving to an independent living retirement community might be something that she would enjoy . I finished the discussion with the words, “Mom, you will know when it is time to move”

Fortunately my patience paid off.  She called me when she decided it was time to look at other living alternatives.  I learned one important lesson. There was no way that I was going to swoop in and tell her what she should do. The change was going to take time. She needed to get comfortable with it and sit with it for awhile before she was ready to consider action.

If you  tend to be a swooper, keep a few things in mind. Resist the temptation to become your parent’s CEO. Rather, position yourself as his/her valued consultant. Keep in touch with your parent on a regular basis. Make subtle suggestions long before you recommend changes. Mention what your friends’ parents have done and why they are so happy. If no other family members are near to your parent develop a relationship with her close friends in town, her minister, priest or rabbi  and ask them to keep in touch.  Communication is the key. It is more important to become a good listener than an order giver.

95 Year Old Investor Beats Elder Fraud!

We are finally seeing action taken to protect elderly investors from sharks in the financial services business who prey on them.

A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority panel awarded the elderly investor, David Wolfson, $1.6 million in a case involving StockCross Financial Services Inc. of Beverley Hills, Calif. Mr. Wolfson accused StockCross, along with two of its brokers, of misconduct and self dealing. He claimed the brokers recommended and solicited unsuitable and overly risky investments that were actively traded on margin.

The claim, which was filed in March, also alleged that StockCross and the two brokers, Thomas B. Cooper and Peter L. Boorn, put Mr. Wolfson’s home at risk. According to the complaint, they “encouraged and invited Mr. Wolfson to leverage the equity in his home with a reverse-mortgage transaction to utilize as investment capital.”

According to the complaint, Mr. Wolfson was a client of Mr. Cooper for almost 20 years, when Mr. Cooper dropped the account in 2008.

A footnote to the lawsuit alleged that Mr. Cooper “quit because he had bilked nearly all of Mr. Wolfson’s assets—including the equity in his home, all his cash reserves, all his emergency/medical cash reserves and even the insurance money Mr. Wolfson received to replace his automobile—and there was nothing left to churn.”

The arbitrators awarded Mr. Wolfson $320,000 in compensatory damages and $960,000 in damages for elder abuse. They also awarded the 95-year-old $234,000 in legal fees, expert witness fees of $62,000, various costs of $21,000 and $10,000 as sanctions for failing to follow discovery orders.

Sweet justice! Unfortunately too rare in the financial services industry.