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Having “The Talk:” Lessons from the Sopranos


I am finally streaming The Sopranos,  and am really enjoying this award-winning HBO series. One of the greatest surprises and pleasures of this show for me has been the relationship between Tony Soprano and his aging mother Livia (portrayed so beautifully by the late James Gandolfini and the late Nancy Marchand respectively.) Consider this scenario: Tony’s widowed mother Livia, who lives alone, has refused home care in spite of setting a fire in her kitchen, and insists on driving. She has had a car accident resulting in serious injuries to herself and her best friend. Tony and his wife, Carmella, have been trying for some time to convince Livia that she should move to a retirement community with no success. The writing is brilliant. Even though very funny and deliberately over the top, I found myself nodding my head, remembering my own similar ineffective attempts to talk my father into accepting an in-home caregiver, only to have him shut me down. Livia’s anger and stubbornness brought it all back to me in a flash. Watch this video of the scene, as Tony decides to have The Talk with his mother and means business. (This segment has been edited for language).

What we can learn from the Sopranos

I think this interaction between Tony and his mother is a gem for many reasons. It shows that even a hardened criminal has a tender spot for his mother and her welfare in her advancing age. In other scenes, he expresses his feelings of responsibility and guilt about his mother’s care, noting that his sisters will not help her, his wife does not want her mother in law to move into their house, and that he alone must ensure her safety. However, with the best of intentions, he falls prey to many of the mistakes that the rest of us make in this challenging and increasingly common situation with an aging parent. At the same time, we can see he is trying his best to persuade his mother that she will be better off if she moves. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that we can learn from Tony and his mother:

  • Stay on topic: When your mother changes the subject to talk about her valuables, be friendly, and change the subject back to your concern for her.
  • Do point out negative thinking: Tony reminds his mother that she is responding with negativity to his suggestions about the retirement community without giving it a try.
Don’ts (Where do we begin… there are a lot here!):
  • Don’t fall for manipulation. When Livia starts telling Tony that she has given away valuable jewelry to another family member, she knows just which of his buttons to push. Beware of comparisons to other siblings or dredging up old history.
  • Don’t let your anger get the best of you. If you hear yourself yelling, or your parent is yelling, someone is angry. Time to take a breather, agree to disagree and wait til another time to discuss.
  • Don’t make threats. Tony is pulling out all the stops with a threat of getting legal authority over his mother to make her do what he wants her to do. We know that someone like Tony Soprano wants to avoid the law as much as possible, and you want to avoid this tactic too.
  • Don’t take away control. Even with a tough customer like Livia, seek to make compromises, such as a short-term trial stay at an assisted living, or a test run  with a new home caregiver. It may not be the final result that you are looking for, but it may go a long way in providing a sense of safety and confidence to the elder.

Remember, this is usually best approached as one conversation in a series of many, not a singular talk that will address the needs and concerns of all parties. You will likely have some frustrations as Tony does, but hopefully without the fireworks!




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