Dealing with elderly parents who refuse help
Elderly parents who refuse help from their kids are among the norm, rather than the exception. Many adult children struggle with their parents to get them to take advice or accept help with their daily tasks. It can be difficult for aging adults to accept assistance from others after years of being the ones providing the help.
But even if your parents have refused help for years, the situation isn’t entirely hopeless.
Some of the methods that we suggest may surprise you because often, the resolution to a conflict between a parent and their adult child involving assistance and advice is paradoxical. Parents may need for their kids to back down first and be more receptive to the emotional components of their situation in order to accept a more assertive form of assistance.
Though you may be looking at your parent’s physical well-being, they may be more concerned about daily bouts with depression or anxiety. Though you may be thinking ahead about their health by suggesting they eat better or quit smoking, they may simply be trying to get through the day by enjoying things that bring them pleasure.
Emotionally, they may feel fear, anger, or anxiety that’s quelled by their bad habits. Or they may be suffering from a form of dementia that just hasn’t become apparent to you yet.
This article outlines methods that adult children can use to convince their elderly parents to accept their help or in some situations, to simply better understand what their parents truly need.
Sometimes adult children suggest lifestyle changes that aren’t realistic for parents because their situation is obscured. And sometimes a parent may just need for you to tune in more to their emotional needs or show them respect before they can accept that you, as a much younger individual, have enough wisdom to provide advice worthy of their consideration.
How do you get your aging parents to listen to you?
You may have tried everything to get your parents to accept your advice or assistance. Elderly parents often refuse their child’s advice in part because they’re used to being in the parental role. It can be very difficult, as a parent to switch roles and become the one who needs advice and help and it can be doubly challenging to let your children be parental toward you.
Sensitivity in regard to the transformation that elderly individuals are going through is definitely a first step toward getting elderly parents to pay attention to you and accept your assistance.
Below we’ve outlined additional tactics that will help elderly parents see the value of your assistance:
- Accept the reality of things.
The only person you can ever really change is yourself! This may sound cliché, but it’s also a true statement that can help you navigate through the challenges of caring for resistant parents.
When you accept that your role is limited and that you can’t force your ideas or assistance on anyone, including your parents, your methods of persuasion change naturally. And when you start to use less forceful persuasion strategies, your parents may soften and lower their guard.
Acceptance is a challenge at all ages and stages of life. While you work to accept that your parents don’t have to take your assistance or advice, they have to work to accept that they are getting older and they have to hand off the torch to you.
They may be very proud of you and they may truly appreciate your efforts to help, but be unable to emotionally let their guard down or fully accept your help just merely because you’re forcing help on them.
Many people reflexively resist people who are forceful, particularly if a person is trying to force a lifestyle change on them. But when you cultivate an attitude of acceptance, you create room for your parents to do the same thing. This can go a long way toward creating an atmosphere where your assistance might be better received.
- Understand what motivates your parents.
No one wants to get old and aging can be a very difficult process. Some elderly parents may suffer from dementia or other mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. As aging parents lose their independence due to physical ailments, they are likely to have strong, negative emotions about this process. If you try to give them advice about these problems without listening carefully to their situation, and truly trying to understand it, you’re likely to meet with a lot of resistance.
Parents have obviously and inevitably lived through more years on earth than their children so they have experiences that their children lack. And they’re navigating a developmental stage in life that younger adults simply haven’t gone through yet.
So, in order to truly understand what your parents are going through and what would motivate them to make changes, you have to listen to them and think about what they’re saying. Indeed, you have to listen without assuming that you already understand their situation. Ask your parents questions and let them surprise you with their answers.
Once you better understand what motivates your parents and why they’re making the choices their making and why they’re refusing your assistance, you can recalibrate, if necessary, and either change your advice, quit offering assistance altogether, or switch your persuasive strategies and instead convince your parents to take your help and advice by motivating them using the same type of thoughts that they use to motivate themselves.
Below are some important questions that you can ask yourself about your parents to better understand what motivates them to do what they do, even if what they’re doing hurts them:
● Are you parents depressed?
● Are your parents confused? Is it possible that they have dementia?
● Are you parents acting this way due to habit?
● Do your parents feel like they need to assert or defend their independence?
● Are your parents afraid of something? If so, what scares them?
- Treat your parents with respect.
At times it may be difficult to treat your parents with respect, especially if they’re behaving childishly. Or if you had a difficult relationship with your parents when you were younger, you may struggle to approach them with patience, kindness, and respect.
Indeed, as your parents age, you may often feel like you’ve switched roles with your parents and like you’re the adult and they’re the child. But if you notice this happening, make a strong effort not to infantilize your parents.
If you had a difficult relationship with your parents when you were younger, but now you’re trying to make amends or turn over a new leaf by taking care of them, it may feel like your parents are adding salt to your wounds by refusing your assistance.
It can be extremely difficult to behave respectfully toward parents who may not have gotten five gold stars in the parenting department when you were growing up. But rather than trying to get your parents to change their manner of behaving toward you by taking care of them during this new stage in your lives, it might yield better results to show them unconditional respect.
Many adult children try to get their parents to express gratitude to them for their caregiving efforts. This gratitude is like the Holy Grail of the relationship and children may never receive it! Paradoxically, some adult children who may have never felt loved, respected, or truly wanted as children must give respect and gratitude to their parents before their parents will be able to accept help from them.
Unconditional respect means that you need to respect your parents’ wishes and hear your parents’ words. In doing so, you must assume (given that your parents don’t suffer from dementia or other types of mental illness), that your parents mean what they say and say what they mean.
When you respond to what your parents are saying to you with words, rather than what you think they’re trying to say to you, it will make it so they have to think more carefully about what they say.
Treating your parents with respect may, at times, mean that you leave and don’t return (unless they ask you to). It means that you hear them and respond to them on the basis of their words, rather than on the basis of any problems that have existed in the relationship since you were young.
- Remember your parent’s best interests.
If you’re trying to help your parents, then you need to remember that the goal is to meet their best interests. But sometimes your best interests and their best interests may conflict.
You may think it would be best for them to have a nurse come to their house daily, but they may be staunchly against such a thing. To you, having someone visit them daily would be a huge relief, but for them, it would destroy their privacy and independence.
To solve a dilemma that involves a conflict of interest like this, it’s essential to recognize that what you want and what your parents want aren’t matching up.
And it isn’t fair to make your parents change their perception of the problem to help you achieve your interests. Compromise plays an important role when people have conflicting interests.
But compromise requires conversation and mutual understanding by both parties. So, if you want to change your parents’ minds about something, spend some time talking with them and do your best to understand their interests and what they want.
- Ask parents to change for the little ones (grandkids).
Parents are often unwilling to make big changes for other grown adults in the family, but they don’t want to miss out on cuddle time with grandkids. If certain lifestyle changes would benefit the grandchildren, you may be able to play this card with parents to motivate them to make lasting changes.
- Talk about how their behavior affects you.
Some parents may not understand how their behavior affects their adult children. They may be so stressed and scared that they aren’t able to think about anyone except themselves. But that doesn’t mean your parents don’t care about you. If you talk honestly about how their lifestyle changes would benefit you, they would have the opportunity to understand. Not all parents will respond to this sort of thing, but it’s worth a try. Your parents may surprise you.
- Break old patterns.
One of the keys to resolving difficult or long-standing relationship issues is to break patterns. Notice the patterns in your relationship with your parents. Do you tend to arrive at their house, stay for five minutes, and then start arguing with them? Do your arguments follow the same pattern each time? Do you tend to present the exact same points over and over again in arguments?
Break one of the negative patterns that you’ve observed in your relationship with your parents. If you tend to stand up and argue by yelling or storming out of the house, change the pattern by becoming silent in the middle of the fight and sitting quietly while listening.
If you tend to back down quickly and cry to try to get your parents to listen to you, keep your cool instead and tell them that you’re not going to engage with them. Rather, you’ll come back later after you and they have had a chance to cool down.
Pattern breakage in relationships makes relationships more flexible. It allows people to get to know each other better including what motivates them and what scares them. If you’re the one noticing the patterns and then changing the patterns, you’re technically in control even though it may feel very out of control when you try out new patterns in your relationship with your parents.
It’s like the difference between playing out a pre-written theatrical script as an actor and taking control of the situation to rewrite the script in new ways. When you rewrite the script, you’re both the author and the director of the situation. Your parents will have to come up with new ways to respond to you when you change the script. Each time you make changes to the script, you’ll learn something new about them.
What are some signs that an elderly loved one needs help?
Recognizing when your elderly parents need help isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always pleasant to acknowledge the reality of the situation. But, being able to recognize when your parents need extra care or additional support is important, and often, adult children are the first ones to make this realization. While there are a lot of signs that can point to a parent’s need for help and support, here are some of the most important and commonly observed signs that you should pay attention to:
Struggling to Get Around
Even if your parents have been agile and physically fit for most of their lives, there comes a point when they will begin to struggle with certain movement-based activities. If you begin to notice that your parents are having trouble getting up the stairs, standing up and sitting down, or that they’re expressing issues with joint and muscle pain, this can be a clear sign that help is needed. Depending on the exact mobility issues that your parents are experiencing, different tools may be needed, but luckily there are plenty of options available for helping the elderly population with all kinds of movement problems.
Changes in Physical Appearance and Hygiene
Pay attention to your parents’ hygiene and physical appearance as a clue as to whether or not they need help. Unexplained weight loss or weight gain can be indicative of an unaddressed issue, as can an unusually disheveled appearance.
If your parents seem to have not showered, brushed their teeth, gotten a haircut, or performed other similar and basic physical health and hygiene tasks, check in with them and tell them what you’ve observed. Ask if you can work to solve the problem together. These changes can be the result of various issues, so it’s important to initiate a conversation with your parents to see what the actual need is before taking an action.
A Cluttered or Unkempt Home
Often as a person gets older, it becomes more and more difficult for them to physically keep up with managing the upkeep of their home. Unread mail, an unmowed lawn, a home with lots of dust, or a kitchen with lots of dirty dishes can all be signs that your parent is having trouble taking care of themselves and their environment. Have a conversation with your parents to see what they feel they need, and tell them what you’ve observed. The upkeep of a home is a very personal thing, so approach this topic gently.
Change in Behavior and Personality
Changes in behavior or personality can be signs of either a minor imbalance, or it can be a sign of something more serious such as physical illness or a mental disorder. If your parent expresses any unusual change in behavior, it’s important to pay careful attention to it and consult with a doctor if it seems serious. Having a discussion with your parents about what you’ve noticed can also help determine the type and severity of the situation before you contact a healthcare professional.
Understanding why your parents might refuse help. What are their fears?
There are many different reasons why your parents might refuse help. Usually, this refusal and resistance is directly connected to a fear.
Below are some of the most common fears that an elderly parent might experience that may cause them to refuse assistance:
Fear of Loss of Control
As we age into adults, most of us prize the ability to be in complete control of ourselves and our actions. When we’re young, we look forward to the day that we’ll be able to manage ourselves and our lives, and when we’re finally adults, we place a high value on self-control.
Many parents may have a fear of losing control in old age, whether due to illness or other factors, and this fear might cause them to refuse help in an effort to maintain their sense of control. It may seem counter-intuitive to think that receiving help when it’s needed may make an older adult feel out of control, but this is a common fear held by a large number of elderly individuals.
Fear of Change
Getting older and reaching a life stage where you need extra support and assistance is a major life change, and it’s helpful to recognize that this life transition is no different than becoming a teenager, a young adult, or a parent. This transition involves a lot of changes, not only physically and mentally, but also in terms of routine, social circle, and sometimes, environment.
Change can be scary, and it’s not uncommon for humans to be more resistant to change the older they get. Thus, it’s crucial to recognize that your parents might be refusing help simply due to a fear of change, and to open the conversation and address their primary concerns as soon as possible.
CDPAP is a Medicaid-sponsored program that allows elderly parents to choose their own children or family members as home caregivers. As caregivers in the CDPAP program, family caregivers get compensated for their time. This can help ease parents’ fears of change when it comes to needing a caregiver, as well as helping them feel more in control of themselves and their situation. Some parents may also derive comfort from knowing that their caregiver (a family member) is getting compensated from their time.
Fear of Impoverishment
Elderly individuals tend to have a lot of concerns and fear surrounding the fact that, as they get older, it becomes less and less possible for them to get a job that pays a decent wage. This is especially true as they start to reach an age where they need help with day-to-day tasks.
A fear of impoverishment, of not being able to make a living wage, or take control of their financial situation often holds elderly parents back from graciously accepting help from adult children and other family members. This fear can manifest in a variety of stubborn behaviors, but it’s important for you (the adult child) to understand the core cause of these behaviors so that you can respond appropriately.
Fear of Being Perceived “Less Than” or “Incapable”
This is a fairly common fear as parents get older and start to need more help from the people around them (including their own adult children). They might be concerned that if they need support from their own children, that they are no longer valuable as contributing family members, or they might compare themselves to other people of a similar age who are doing “better” in some way. If this is a fear that your parents have, the truth is that they’re the only ones who can truly resolve it; however your support and reassurance is valuable and absolutely essential.
Strategies for Dealing with a Parent Who Refuses Care
Ask About Their Preferences for Care
If your parent refuses care, asking them for their preferences on how care is provided or what kind of help they need may help reduce their resistance. Often, a parent who refuses care may have underlying fears or concerns that prevent them from being open to receiving care. By asking directly what they believe they would need help with, or how they want to be helped and by whom, you will understand what they need and hopefully also reduce tension.
Be Gentle; Avoid “Pushing and Pulling”
All too often, children of elderly parents who need care exhibit a “push-pull” behavior that is accompanied by a rough and gruff demeanor and tone. While dealing with a parent who is refusing care can be frustrating, it’s important to remain gentle and sensitive. Manipulative “push-pull” techniques are unlikely to work, especially if your parent is grappling with some kind of fear around receiving home care or care in another context.
Being gentle doesn’t mean being docile necessarily, but it does mean being aware of and attentive to your parent’s feelings and needs. If you feel frustrated, take a deep breath. Remain calm and you might be able to understand your parent’s refusal of care, and thus you may even be able to find a solution that will be beneficial to them and also to everyone else involved.
Communicate Assertively and in a Straightforward Way
When communicating with an elderly parent who is refusing care, it’s important to communicate directly and to avoid being vague. This is especially important when you’re working with a stubborn elderly parent. They’re more likely to respond to simplified, to-the-point statements and questions than to long, elaborate explanations. If you’re working with an elderly parent who has trouble with memory, it’s also important to get to the point so that it’s easier for them to remember what you are saying and to respond appropriately.
Elderly parents might get overwhelmed more easily in certain situations, so it’s best to be as clear as possible. Some resistance and refusal of help may simply be a reaction to feeling overwhelmed with a situation, and where instead of trying to understand, the parent “shuts down” because it's easier and less physically and mentally stressful. Thus, it’s essential to communicate assertively and directly, even if that means avoiding certain niceties you may use in everyday life with other people.
Ask Simple Questions
This is related to the last point. While it might feel like the right thing to do to give your parents plenty of options, if they are refusing help or care, it’s best to ask simple questions. While open ended questions may be necessary sometimes, the closer you can get the question to a simple yes-or-no question, the better. The clearer the questions, the less resistance there is to answering it, and the clearer the answer will be too. This can sometimes be a difficult jump for children to make in terms of the way that they relate to their parents, but it’s one of the most important ways to deal with an elderly parent who is refusing care or assistance.
Stay Calm and Positive
Staying calm and positive when you’re working with an elderly parent can be difficult, but it can also be one of the most important things that you can do to help and support your parents. Even if on the outside you’re trying to appear calm and positive, if you actually are feeling upset, frustrated, or even angry, your microexpressions and vocal intonation will give it away. And seniors are particularly sensitive to these small nonverbal communications. Making an effort to cultivate a genuinely calm attitude will make a significant difference.
Focusing on the positives of the situation, of your parent’s behavior, or of something else is also likely to improve your parent’s overall mood and demeanor. If you focus on what they’re doing well and what they don’t need help with, it might be easier to guide the conversation into one that concerns the areas in which they do need help and support. For example, if you take note of how your parents are still able to prepare their own meals, take care of their physical needs, and more or less live independently, they might be more willing to discuss that they need support with managing medications and finances.