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

9 minute readLast updated June 30, 2023
fact checkedon June 30, 2023
Written by Kim Acosta
Reviewed by Carol Bradley BursackAuthor Carol Bradley Bursack spent two decades as a primary caregiver to seven elders and is also a newspaper columnist, blogger, and aging expert.
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Supporting aging parents brings a host of challenges. It may make perfect sense to you that your parent needs to hire someone to help keep their house clean or needs to consider senior living in order to stay safe. 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 the next time you talk to your parent about their care needs to help make the conversation more productive and free of judgment from both sides.

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What should you do if your parents seem too stubborn to accept help?

If you’re struggling with what to do when elderly parents refuse help, you’re not alone: A whopping 77% of adult children believe their parents are stubborn about taking their advice or getting 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 act as caregivers for aging parents. The following steps can make it easier for you and your parent to navigate this next chapter of their life.

1. Understand their 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. Recognizing where your parent is coming from can help you choose the best approach when broaching the topic of 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.

2. 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.

“[Your parents] are adults with the right to make decisions — even poor ones,” Modigliani says.

Accepting this fact, as hard as it is, can help lower your stress and even improve your relationship with your aging parents.

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3. 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 than no one responds well to nagging — and 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.

4. Focus on 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.

5. Be calm but stay persistent

Asking someone to make changes to their lifestyle is a big deal, and you shouldn’t expect to reach a conclusion after one conversation. Whether you’re talking about moving to an assisted living community 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. You can also learn some additional tips in our guide for what to do when your parent is refusing to move into assisted living.

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.

6. Step back when things are out of your control

Your parents have the right to make their own decisions, even if they’re not decisions you can agree with. Sometimes, all you can do is offer your advice and then let your parents choose.

Professional family mediator Roseann Vanella of Marlton, New Jersey, has had to use this strategy while assisting her elderly parents who refuse 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.”

7. Create a support system for your parents

If you’re the person who has the most conversations with your parent about their care and any safety concerns, it might be time to bring in some outside assistance. See if you can attend a doctor 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.

Sharing your concerns with people your parent respects will hopefully help your parent realize that others share the same concerns about their health and safety. Additionally, it may give your parents a larger group of people to lean on should they 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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8. Ask them to do it for you

Another approach to assisting elderly parents who refuse help is to be direct about how it affects you. Communicate your worries 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. For example, you may convince your parent to quit smoking by pointing out the risks of smoking around their grandchildren.

9. 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 to help release negative emotions.

10. Plan for 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. Showing your concern in a loving, sensitive way can be a great way to tighten 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 >

Helping 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 while ensuring the elderly person or persons at the center of the conversation understand 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 advice and care options, from home care to assisted living or memory care. Having a small group of communities or home care agencies provides a good starting point 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.


  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
Kim Acosta

Kim Acosta is managing editor at A Place for Mom. She’s produced digital and print content for more than 20 years as an editorial leader at Shape magazine, P&G, Hallmark, and others. Her work has appeared in national media outlets including Family Circle, Parents, Lifescript, BuzzFeed, Living Fit, Natural Health, WorkingMother.com, and HomeCare.

Reviewed by

Carol Bradley Bursack

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