8 Expert Tips for When Aging Parents Won’t Listen
Last Updated: November 14, 2019
Growing up, our parents always asked that we listen to them, but what happens when they refuse to listen to us? Many adult children are finding that their parents don’t always know best when it comes to their diet, driving, housing, medication and more.
Dad or Mom Won’t Take Your Advice: Now What?
Researchers from Penn State University, the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, and the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine found that 77% of adult children believe their parents are stubborn about taking their advice or getting help with daily problems.1
Mary Heitger-Marek, a 46-year-old program analyst from Annapolis, Maryland, could write a book on parental stubbornness and negativity. Both of her parents suffered from chronic health problems while living in a condo with steep stairs in Florida. Heitger-Marek begged them to move near her to a housing community with caring support. Instead, they stayed in state and bought a home with a pool and yard. They also acquired a pet. Several falls (some from walking their new dog) and multiple surgeries ensued. Heitger-Marek’s parents still refused to hire help for either themselves or for caring for their house. Instead, they moved into an independent living community near their daughter, again refusing a professional caregiver. Shortly after, their situation changed rapidly. Her dad passed suddenly, and since then, her mother has been hospitalized four times. Heitger-Marek’s mother is now in rehab and has plans to move in with her after being discharged. She is still vowing not to have outside help.
“My parents’ life decisions have greatly impacted me, and I am very resentful,” says Heitger-Marek. “I love my mother, but I am at my wit’s end. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times my husband and I have suggested options to improve my parents’ quality of life, and they have turned us down. I feel like we could open a senior care business because of all the programs, aid and other things we have looked into for them.”
What To Do When Your Aging Parents Won’t Listen
We asked experts for their advice on what to do in situations like this, and unlike some parents, we carefully listened. Experts recommend the following steps when it comes to relieving negativity:
Accept the situation.
You may want your mantra to be “It is what it is.” Said another way, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Suzanne Modigliani, a Boston-based geriatric care manager with a social work background, points out, “They are adults with the right to make decisions — even poor ones.” While you might wish you could control your aging parents for their own good, the reality is you cannot force them to do anything. Accepting this fact can help reduce your stress and even improve your relationship with your parents.
Blame It on the Kids (That Would Be You) or the Grandkids.
If Mom isn’t willing to change her behavior for herself, would she do it for a loved one? Robert Kane, M.D., author of “The Good Caregiver,” Director of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota and a professor in its School of Public Health, says his mother quit smoking after his sister argued the second-hand smoke was a risk to the grandchildren. Another approach is to say to your parent, “You don’t want me to worry, right? This (fill in the blank) will give me enormous peace of mind and help get rid of any negativity. Please do it for me!”
Decide how Important the Matter Is.
Is it a safety issue relating to a condition like dementia or an issue that is just irritating but inconsequential? If it is a safety concern relating to dementia or Alzheimer’s, then it’s important to intervene. On the flipside, most people don’t respond well if they feel they are constantly being nagged, so it might help your case, in the long run, to stop insisting your parents update their phones, join a fitness class, or other similar tasks. As the saying goes, pick your battles. Your parents are much more likely to take your concerns seriously if you learn to only bring attention to certain ones.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up.
Roseann Vanella, 50, of Marlton, New Jersey, happens to be a family mediator. But even with her professional training, she has been unable to reason with her older parents. Her father, 84, has dementia, and her mother, 75, has a rare blood disorder. Still, her mother insisted on taking her husband with dementia to Sicily on vacation. Vanella told her, “I can’t stop you, so at least get medical jet insurance.” She said she would. Soon after arriving in Italy, her mother’s disease kicked up; she needed a blood transfusion and to come home. She admitted she never purchased insurance. Vanella and her brother were on the next plane. “After that, I said, ‘she’s never going to take him to Europe,’ but she did,” says Vanella. “I told her how bad it was for my dad since his dementia had progressed.” Again, Vanella had to go to Italy and bring them back. “The hardest part is knowing something could have been averted, especially in terms of my dad’s dementia, but wasn’t,” she notes. “My advice is not to hit your head against the wall too hard. There isn’t a lot we can do sometimes but stand by, watch closely and be able to jump in when needed.”
Find an Outside Outlet for Your Feelings.
If you’re angry or resentful that Dad’s not with the program or taking his medication, confide in, strategize with or vent to a friend, geriatric care manager, geriatrician, online support group, sibling or therapist rather than your parents. This is especially important if you act as the primary caregiver to your parents. While you certainly care deeply about your parents, it is easy to become overwhelmed with frustration, fear, and anxiety when constantly dealing with their negative behavior. Instead, make sure you are caring for yourself and finding activities that help you release your negative emotions.2
To avoid potential problems, help your parents remember important dates instead of getting upset or frustrated with them if they forget. Is there a milestone they want to be around for, such as an anniversary, graduation or wedding? Then bring it up! Even if your parent has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, living with memory loss can be very difficult for elderly adults to deal with.
Treat Them Like the Adults They Are.
While it may feel as if the relationship between you and your parents have switched at times, it is important to remember that they are still your parents and that they desire to be treated with respect. Dr. Kane warns about infantilizing parents. “Dealing with a stubborn parent is not the same as dealing with a stubborn child. Older people should be autonomous.” Avoid behaviors such as threatening to move a parent to a nursing home or insisting you always know what’s best, which will only drive a wedge between you and your parents. Remember that, above all, the goal is to help your parents receive the best care possible. You’re much likely to get positive results by treating your aging parents like the adults they are. This goes for simple tasks such as helping your parents remember to take their medications as well as harder tasks like helping them get treatment for dementia.
Try to Understand the Motivation Behind Their Behavior.
Aging is a difficult process for everyone. Many older adults are living with dementia or mental health issues, including anxiety. Taking time to understand how your parents might be feeling and realizing that their autonomy is important to them can help reduce a lot of negative emotions. Modigliani says to ask yourself: Are they acting this way out of habit, to assert independence, or because they’re depressed or confused or have dementia? What are they afraid of?
Have you or your family had an experience like this before? What advice do you have for others’ aging parents who won’t listen? We’d like to hear your story in the comments below.
1Rosenblatt, C. (2013, September 29). 5 Success Tips With Difficult Aging Parents. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolynrosenblatt/2011/01/27/5-success-tips-with-difficult-aging-parents/#3470d4be532e.
2The CaregiverBill of Rights. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/caregiver-support.
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