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What to Do When Elderly Parents Refuse Help: 10 Useful Tips and Strategies

17 minute readLast updated October 26, 2023
fact checkedon October 21, 2023
Written by Nirali Desai, memory care writer
Reviewed by Carol Bradley Bursack, NCCDP-certified dementia support group facilitatorAuthor Carol Bradley Bursack spent two decades as a primary caregiver to seven elders and is also a newspaper columnist, blogger, and expert on aging.
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Supporting aging parents brings a host of challenges. It may make perfect sense to you that your parent needs help, like with housekeeping or personal care. However, they may refuse help and say no to the idea of a caregiver or senior care community. If your parent dismisses your concerns, you may think they’re being irrational or stubborn, even though you’re just trying to help. Fortunately, the situation isn’t hopeless. Use the tips in this article to talk openly with your parent about their care needs and to help make the conversation productive and free of judgment on both sides.

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If you’re struggling with what to do when elderly parents refuse help, you’re not alone. A whopping 77% of adults believe their parents are stubborn when it comes to accepting help with daily tasks, according to a study by researchers at Penn State University.[01]

“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’ve turned us down,” says Mary Heitger-Marek, a program analyst from Annapolis, Maryland. “I feel like we could open a senior care business because of all the programs, aid, and other things we’ve looked into for them.”

Unfortunately, Heitger-Marek’s feelings aren’t uncommon among adult children who take on caregiving duties for their aging parents. Read on for steps that might make it easier for you and your parent to navigate this next chapter of their life.

Initiate the conversation early

Health complications aren’t always predictable, so planning early may not be an option for all families. However, if your parents are showing minor signs of aging or weight loss, you may want to start the conversation about their future care needs early.

“Talk to them when they are still thriving and in control,” says Amy McLoughlin, a learning and development specialist at A Place for Mom who has over 15 years of experience in the senior living industry. She says that reaching out when your parents are still autonomous allows you to talk about hypotheticals without any stress. You can talk through what your parent wants in the event of a stroke, dementia diagnosis, or other medical conditions that may run in the family.

An early conversation also enables your parents to think about how their needs may impact your life in the future. While they’re healthy, they may be able to more easily see how their needs may end up burdening you. Planning for an unexpected situation together can prevent your elderly parents from being selfish when the time comes for caregiving.

Be sure to think about situations where a parent may not be able to make decisions. If they were to become incapacitated, who would they want in charge? If they select a trustworthy power of attorney (POA) in advance, they can avoid potentially difficult situations in the future.

Understand your parent's concerns and behaviors

Aging is a difficult process for virtually everyone. Many older adults are living with dementia or mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Recognize where your parent is coming from, so you can choose the best approach when broaching the topic of them accepting help. While you’re likely focused on safety, your parent’s top priority is likely maintaining their autonomy.

“Realizing that your parents’ autonomy is important to them can be beneficial as well,” says social worker Suzanne Modigliani, a Massachusetts-based life care specialist who works with families to solve elder care problems. She suggests asking yourself some key questions about your parents’ behavior:

  • Are they acting this way out of habit?
  • Are they worried about losing their independence?
  • Are they suffering from depression or anxiety?
  • Are they confused, or do they have dementia?
  • What are some things they may be fearing?

Identifying the root causes of your parents’ behavior can help you choose the best way to make positive changes.

Evaluate your loved one's current situation

Don’t expect to make big changes overnight. Even if you think your parent needs help, acknowledge what they can still do as a way of showing them that you value their independence. For example, if your parent needs some help with cleaning but still enjoys cooking, don’t suggest hiring someone who will help with both.

Also, keep in mind that although you have your parents’ best interests at heart, they’re in control of their own life and care options. Accepting this fact, as hard as it is, can help lower your stress and even improve your relationship with your aging parents.

Start with the most important issues

Decide what issues are the most important and focus on those — at least initially. Matters involving your parents’ safety at home, for instance, should take top priority. Your parents will be much more likely to take your concerns seriously if you don’t bombard them with several at once, even if the concerns are valid.

Until your other concerns are addressed, it might help your case to stop insisting your parents update their phones,join a fitness class, or complete other beneficial but nonessential tasks.

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Be calm, but stay persistent

When you ask someone to make changes to their lifestyle, it’s a big deal, so you shouldn’t expect to reach a conclusion after one conversation. Whether you’re talking about a move to assisted living or making a small adjustment to their diet, it may still put your parent on edge. They’ll need time to process the points you’re bringing up.

Whenever you bring up any topic relating to your parent’s care, plan to do so when things are going smoothly and neither you nor your parent is overly stressed. Talking about significant life changes when one or both of you is upset will only make the discussion more difficult.

“Communicate without emotion and try to catch them on a good day,” suggests McLoughlin. If they’re generally doing well, you can approach the conversation with some simple questions like:

  • What could be better in your life?
  • What is the most important thing for you as you age?
  • What or who can help improve the quality of your life?

Simpler questions like these can spark important conversations and help you understand one another.

Treat your parent like an adult

Even if you believe your parent is behaving irrationally, it doesn’t mean you can or should talk down to them. Treat them like the adult that they are, and remember that no one responds well to nagging — try not to give your parents orders.

“Avoid infantilizing your parents,” said Dr. Robert Kane, former director of the Center on Aging and author of The Good Caregiver. “Dealing with a stubborn parent is not the same as dealing with a stubborn child. Older people should be autonomous.”

Instead of telling your parent what to do, try asking open-ended questions such as, “How do you feel about keeping up with home maintenance?” This will help your parent open up instead of leading them to feel defensive about their current lifestyle.

Allow them to make their own decisions

“You have to realize they’re an adult, and they’re allowed to make their own decisions — even if you think it’s the wrong one,” says McLoughlin.

She explains that if you feel like you’ve done everything in your power to get your loved one to accept help and they still refuse, you have to accept that you’ve tried and give yourself permission to let go. It’s important to remember that you tried and their refusal to accept help is not a reflection of you.

Step back when things are out of your control

Sometimes, all you can do is offer your advice and then let your parents choose.

Professional family mediator Roseann Vanella of Marlton, New Jersey, used this strategy while assisting her elderly parents who refused help. Her father has dementia, and her mother has a rare blood disorder. Still, her mother insisted on taking her husband to Sicily on vacation.

“I can’t stop you, so at least get medical jet insurance,” Vanella advised. Her mother said she would.

Soon after arriving in Italy, her mother’s disease flared up. She needed a blood transfusion — at home. Vanella’s mother admitted she never purchased the insurance, so Vanella and her brother were on the next plane to Italy.

“The hardest part is knowing something could have been averted but wasn’t,” she says. “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.”

Create a backup plan

McLoughlin suggests having a backup plan in place for parents who continue to refuse help. For instance, if you’ve seen balance problems in your elderly mother who refuses to do anything about it, you may be fearful of her falling and suffering from an injury that results in a serious surgery. Hospital visits after falls in seniors are often followed up with a stay in a skilled nursing or assisted living facility. You can plan ahead and make it easier on your family by looking into potential places to move her into in the event of such a fall.

Doing this ahead of time will help you be more present in the moment, so you can enjoy your time with your loved one instead of arguing. It’ll also prevent you from rushing the process and moving her into a place where he or she may not be happy.

Create a support system for your parents

If you’re the person who has the most conversations with your parent about their care and safety concerns, it might be time to bring in some outside assistance. See if you can attend a doctor’s appointment with your parent, or speak to their neighbors, pastor, or anyone else who your parent sees frequently. If you’re concerned about your parent’s cognitive abilities, getting another perspective can be even more important.

“In many cases, it’s important to gather their friends or siblings,” says McLoughlin. You can ask them for advice on how to help your elderly parents, because your parents may be more likely to accept help if someone in a similar stage of life sees that they could benefit from it.

Share your concerns with the people your parent respects. This will hopefully help your parent realize that others share the same concerns about their health and safety as you do. It may also give your parents a larger group of people to lean on should they ever need help. Plus, removing any underlying issues from your family dynamic can help them form a clearer view of their own abilities and needs.

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Be honest with how it all affects you

Another approach to assisting elderly parents who refuse help is to be direct about how it affects you. Communicate your worries or guilt to your parent, and explain how your anxieties will be tempered if they follow your advice.

In many cases, your parent may be more willing to change their behavior for a loved one if they see it is harmful. For example, you may convince your parent to quit smoking by pointing out the risks of smoking around their grandchildren. They may also be more willing to accept caregiving help if they understand how worried you are about their well-being.

Find ways to manage your stress

If you’re upset that your elderly parent refuses to move to a safer living situation or take their medication as directed, it’s important to vent — but not to your parents. Instead, confide in or strategize with a friend, sibling, therapist, or members of an online support group. Finding ways to manage stress is especially important if you’re the primary caregiver to your aging parents.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with frustration, fear, and anxiety when constantly assisting elderly parents who refuse help, no matter how deeply you care about them. Guard against this by caring for yourself and finding activities or hobbies that help you release negative emotions.

Plan your parent's future together

Involving your aging loved one in long-term care planning conversations may help motivate them to receive needed care. Many seniors may be aware they need help but are unsure of how to ask for it on their own. If you show your concern in a loving, sensitive way, this can be a great way to strengthen bonds with your aging parents.

However, talking to your loved one about senior living can also feel intimidating. Our five-step guide makes it easier. This downloadable resource can help you start an empathetic dialogue, ask important questions, and identify next steps.

Download the conversation guide >

Think about costs and how to pay for senior care

If cost is a concern, you might talk through long-term care payment methods together with your loved one. Senior care facilities are often more affordable than families initially think, because aging at home comes with expenses you wouldn’t necessarily expect. To compare your parent’s current living expenses against senior living options near them, you can use A Place for Mom’s senior living cost calculator.

Help your parent move forward

A list of communication tips for when a parent refuses help.

Listen to your parent’s needs. Although you have their best interests at heart, remind yourself that, in the end, they have autonomy over their decisions. Have open conversations, and establish a middle ground where everyone is comfortable. Try to do all of this while ensuring the elderly adult at the center of the conversation understands that you’re coming from a place of love and care.

You can also consult one of A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors. At no cost to your family, these experts in senior living can offer local advice and care options, from home care to assisted living or memory care. Having a small group of communities or home care agencies to reference provides a good starting point for your conversation with your parent, and avoids overwhelming your parent with options. You can talk about the pros and cons of different care options, and you can give your parent the opportunity to tell you what’s most important to them for their future care needs.


  1. Heid, A. R., Zarit, S. H., & Fingerman, K. L. (2016, July). “My parent is so stubborn!” — perceptions of aging parents’ persistence, insistence, and resistanceThe Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

Meet the Author
Nirali Desai, memory care writer

Nirali Desai is a senior copywriter at A Place for Mom specializing in memory care and life enrichment topics. Previously, she worked in marketing and social media, edited a regional senior magazine, and wrote for the American Red Cross. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.

Edited by

Marlena Gates

Reviewed by

Carol Bradley Bursack, NCCDP-certified dementia support group facilitator

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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