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"Speaking in phrases from TV". Nine smart tricks for communicating with elderly parents in emigration


Since the outbreak of full-scale war in Ukraine, communicating with elderly relatives from Russia has become a torture for many emigrants.

Even discussing the simplest domestic issues threatens to turn into listening to endless quotations from the television. And this is the best case scenario - at worst, the elderly parents simply refuse to talk to the "traitors of the motherland".

Often children suffer the most in this situation, whom parents put at the forefront of communication, naively believing that "well, they won't talk about politics with a child. As a result, after a conversation with grandparents, children are either left with a jumble of scraps of Kremlin propaganda in their heads, or with the distinct feeling that their beloved relatives have gone mad - both of which are not conducive to the mental wellbeing of the child.

There is no way of rectifying the current state of affairs now, because it takes months or even years of treatment to bring elderly people poisoned by propaganda back to a normal life.

Andrei Beloveshkin, writer, PhD in medicine:

"Treatment of addicts is a very complex process with low effectiveness and a high relapse rate. Any addiction cripples people, distorts their picture of the world, reformats their brain, and causes them to lose their personality. That is why treatment is so difficult - it all has to be built from scratch.

Denazification, decommunisation, de-Stalinisation, deprogramming, deradicalisation, rehabilitation of victims of destructive habits requires as much effort as treatment of severe addictions.

Rehabilitation takes 1-3 years and includes developing critical thinking and learning their cult's methods, liberation from the values and attitudes imposed by the cult, restoration of their pre-cult self, creating a peaceful environment, training in non-violent communication, and restoration of a docile relationship with the surrounding reality."

Of course, rehabilitation of a victim of a totalitarian sect or totalitarian (authoritarian) regime takes place after the victim has been isolated from the destructive influence of propaganda.

If such isolation is not possible, the treatment will have no effect, because every day the person will receive a new portion of the poisonous substance.

If you are not ready to give up and still want to risk your own mental state to help an elderly relative to come back to reality and realize what is happening, try using the advice from Project Bridge, a Telegram-bot that helps build a dialogue and restore contact with loved ones who have believed Russian propaganda.

But before you rush enthusiastically to open your eyes to the truth for your relatives left behind in Russia, consider: if your plan works, can you offer them a better future than simply living in Russian reality while being fully aware and sober about what is happening?

After all, if your efforts are successful, you will need to think about how to organize the departure of relatives cured of the poisonous effects of propaganda to another, safer, country.  

And we've also read Sasha Galitsky's bestselling book Mama Don't Grieve and made a selection of inspirational quotes. We also talked to experts Anja Bösinger and Karina Zubova-van Dijk, who gave us some tips and tricks for emigrants on communicating with elderly parents.

We have tried very hard to cover such a sensitive issue. Please make sure you read the rest of this material. Hopefully it will help you to set your priorities and make your family a little happier.

Sasha Galitsky is an artist and art-therapist from Israel, author of the bestseller "Mama, don't grieve", who for the past 15 years has been leading studios of wooden sculpture and drawing for the very elderly. Having devoted himself to working with the elderly, he has learned a lot about why it is often difficult for children to communicate with their elderly parents. 

Learn to respect your elderly parents

You have to let them grow old. It's not their fault, it's nature's decision. You should stop being senselessly angry at the universe.

That is to respect them by respecting their freedom to be who they are, not how we would like them to be. Learning to respect the process through which they cheerfully walk themselves back to childhood.

To learn to respect their pursuits, however worthless and meaningless they may seem to us compared to our immediate concerns.

Learning to play preference in our old age? Sing folk songs in a choir? Carving naked dancers and eagles with outstretched wings out of wood? Listen to lectures on distracted topics? Or do nothing at all in front of the television?

All right, Mum. Of course!

Communicating only for the good news.

Old people are afraid of our problems - illnesses, dismissals, failures and heartaches - because every such problem reminds them once again of their own senile powerlessness, their inability to help even their own child. It is a very painful reminder, a very frightening and very humiliating state, a clear proof of senile infirmity, obsolescence, inadequacy.

Pain, annoyance, powerlessness and humiliation are what seniors experience every time we have a bad experience. And so they try with all their might to prevent such situations.

They are constantly asking us about our affairs because they are more afraid of our problems than we are. They are always giving us advice because it is the only way they can influence the situation.

In short, get this through your head - communicating with your elderly parents is only for good news. While there is none - we swallow snot and smile. When there is good news - we tell parents the truth. The pleasant truth.

There's only one way to improve our relationship with them

One and only way to make that relationship easy and simple.

That way is to understand and accept that the relationship will never be better. And it will never be easy or simple either.

We need to find the strength to give elders the opportunity to be who they are. Respect their childish choices. Comply with silly requests. Don't take their ideas seriously. Accept strange demands. Don’t argue with them when they say absolute and obvious nonsense. Because… why? What's the point?

Impressions are what they miss the most

Old people appreciate anything that can somehow distract them from unpleasant physical sensations, bad thoughts and experiences.

So if you want to please your elderly parents, do not give them a pressure cooker, coffee maker, washing machine or any other, from your point of view, absolutely necessary object in the household, the appearance of which you think is sure to bring them joy. It won't.

If you want to make them happy, give them your time. But just make sure it's not empty, boring, and cluttered. Choose for a gift time of quality, bright, unusual.

Anya Bösinger, psychologist:

"Long-distance communication is always about 'technology' and the possible difficulties with it in ageing parents. This can also include the 'usual' fear of the cost of communication or the fear of not being able to guess the time because of the time zone difference. And, of course, we all have increased feelings of guilt and helplessness, as distance becomes a barrier to being able to come and help promptly."

Research the "technical specifications" of your old relative

We need to know exactly who we are dealing with. We need to understand what a person who cannot see, cannot hear, cannot stand up is. To understand what a blind person is, try to put yourself in their shoes: at least draw in the dark.

Our older relatives see their abilities diminished every day.

A super-successful man in his 80s, a former businessman and creator of a chain of shops in Israel, comes to my lessons. He comes up to me in tears and asks: "Will you help me?" He suffers from a constant decline in his powers.

Imagine for a moment that your parents gradually switch their regimen from autopilot to manual control. They start taking pills by the hour. The average life expectancy now is 80 years. Five of them are sick and a couple of years they need help. You just have to accept it and realise: OK, that's the normal story, the price of a long life.

Don't engage in conflict

I learned this myself for a long time. There's an armour-piercing shell that pierces any: "I was at your age and you're not at mine yet". And that's really true.

Aggression in older people comes from dissatisfaction with oneself. When you accept the reason for the aggression, when you smile at an elderly relative and don't respond to their outbursts, the aggression subsides.

If you respond, you'll loose.

Of course, you have to be able to change the topic of conversation, change the vector. Try, for example, in a calm situation in a conversation with your parents and change the subject. This exercise will help you in situations of conflict.

"Relations with grandchildren, who often do not speak their parents' native language well, are very important... and grandparents do not speak the grandchildren's foreign language. Try to make sure that children not only know and love their grandparents and speak their language. They, in turn, feel part of the family and culture."

Learn to Forgive

No matter what happens, no matter how hard it is, no matter what insults our elderly parents caused us voluntarily or involuntarily - tomorrow will be a new day.

And before tomorrow, we have to learn to forget everything that happened today.

We do not carry grudges from day to day. We put them out of our heads, out of our hearts, out of our memory - and just forget. And we start a new day of relationship with a clean white sheet.

And then everything will be all right. We love them, don't we? Yes?

Don't blame yourself

Guilt haunts everyone. No matter what happens, you feel like you didn't do enough, you didn't do well, you didn't behave properly with your parents. Don't blame yourself. Time is to blame. It is a closed cycle that does not depend on us.

One has to understand that a person who is approaching the border of life and death, first of all, turns to himself and tries to put his past in order. I have talked to many elderly people who remember things from 40-50 years ago and try to put it all in order. Memory is structured like a sand bottle. When you turn it upside down, the events of yesterday fly away at once, with mum and dad on the bottom.

People withdraw into themselves and it's not our fault, we have to understand it, accept it and try to give them as much as we can.

Helping parents at a distance is possible

It is possible to have that super 'close relationship' with your parents at a great distance and conversely, to have no relationship with them, living in adjoining rooms. It sounds paradoxical, but the truth is that maintaining a close relationship is often even easier from afar.

Anja Besinger, psychologist:

"It is very important to remember that moving to another country kind of puts parent and child in different realities, so telling and explaining has to be much more detailed, as one's own experience no longer helps a parent to understand their child.

Also, many people still have a barrier of "just calling another country", which means that it is best to choose some specific time to call, so that parents have peace of mind and children can prepare and free up time. Make it part of the routine. Don't forget, parent and child's lives often go by at different speeds, so it can be difficult to coincide."

Their familiar, established world keeps them under the illusion of being "young". This world is exactly as it was before they became old.

The armchair is the same, and the sofa, and the bed is virtually unchanged. And so you can feel as if you are the same as before, unchanged. But as soon as you move to a new place, the illusion is immediately shattered. Your youth will finally go away, it will disappear - along with them irrevocably sold flat or irrevocably thrown away furniture.

So as long as there is an opportunity not to pull them out of their routines, don't do it. Even if you can offer them (from your point of view) wonderful conditions, it's still best not to rush into a move.

Even in the olden days, when computers were big, you could help them from a distance, albeit difficult. And now it's no problem at all. Full of sites that allow you to order any service from anywhere to any address - repair, cleaning, and so on.

All you need is for your parents to trust you enough to ask for help.

Expert comment

Karina Zubova-van Dijk

Psychosocial therapist and hypnotherapist

I have a lot of people who come to my practice who have left their parents and emigrated. Especially those without siblings are tormented by feelings of guilt, for obvious reasons. 

We take a situation where moving parents here or returning to the client's home country is impossible. So one has to negotiate with oneself. 

There is one fundamental rule here. It may sound extremely selfish, but I advise you to always start from the attitude "I have my life and my parents have theirs".

I emphasize that this is just an attitude, an angle that will help you to not get bogged down in guilt and punish yourself indefinitely. It doesn't mean that you will turn your parents off from your life in cold blood, by no means! But you will be able to exhale and set your priorities calmly.  Next, you and I have two options.

Option 1. A generally harmonious and good relationship with your parents

I, and often Sasha Galitsky too, recommend the following things - tick the boxes:

  • Financial assistance
  • Frequent video calls
  • Organise gifts, even if they are small
  • Visiting as often as possible (of course, this is now, alas, irrelevant)
  • Talk about your successes
  • Taking an interest in their lives: how they went out, who called, even if the answers aren't always interesting
  • To give them a sense of belonging, to advise them
  • Encourage communication with grandchildren, even if it's online, to make it a regular part of the relationship. This is a huge reservoir of positive energy, a priceless gift
  • Send long, detailed letters and postcards by e-mail or postal service.

Think in advance about options for the future of your mum and dad. Find out about good nursing homes with decent care.

The problem will arise sooner or later and you will need ready-made scenarios.

Option 2. Connections are toxic and you lose a lot of energy in communication

Alas, this happens a lot. The reasons are not always clear and important, it's much more important to learn to live with it. I've had cases in my practice where a person was called twice a day by their mother and blamed for their own loneliness. How long can a person last before they have a nervous breakdown like that? A month, six months?

In that case, I really advise you to go to the practice of a psychotherapist you trust.  You need to work through those underlying and often toxic connections.

Believe me, at some point the oppressive and negative relationships will level out a bit. Primarily because you will become calmer, but the dependency and painful reactions will go away.

If it is difficult for you to communicate with your parents, but you want to keep in touch, try to combine it with something to do. I iron the laundry and call my mother. I water the flowers and talk to my grandmother. You've given them your attention, but you've been doing something else at the same time, so half your energy has gone elsewhere.

Russia faces economic problems and new demographic losses in 2023
De Volkskrant/the Netherlands

Russia faces economic problems and new demographic losses in 2023


"A forced departure is just like losing a loved one or a beloved job, only in this situation we are losing our homeland."