If you’re struggling with aging parents who refuse help, you’re far from 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. Fortunately, the situation isn’t hopeless.
Mary Heitger-Marek, a 50-year-old program analyst from Annapolis, Maryland, like many of us, is asking this question daily. “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,” she says.
“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, Mary’s feelings are not uncommon when caring for aging parents. Aging care and health professionals recommend the following steps to relieve the resentment and anxiety that can accompany caring for aging parents and loved ones:
Aging is a difficult process for virtually everyone. Many older adults are living with dementia or mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Taking time to understand how your parents might be feeling can help you communicate with them better.
“Realizing that your parents’ autonomy is important to them can be beneficial as well,” says social worker Suzanne Modigliani, a Massachusetts-based aging life care specialist who works with families to solve elder care problems. She suggests asking yourself some key questions about your loved ones’ behavior:
Identifying the root cause, or causes, of your parents’ behavior can help you identify the best way to make positive changes.
While you might wish you could control your elderly parents for their own good, the reality is you can’t force them to do anything. Modigliani asserts, “[Your parents] are adults with the right to make decisions — even poor ones.”
Accepting this fact — as hard as it is — can help lower your stress and even improve your relationship with your mother and/or father.
People don’t respond well to nagging, real or perceived. In the long run, it might help your case to stop insisting your parents update their phones, join a fitness class or complete other beneficial, but nonessential, tasks.
Instead, decide what issues are the most important and focus on them — at least initially. Matters involving your parents’ safety, for instance, should take top priority.
But remember, they’re much more likely to take your concerns seriously if you don’t bombard them with several at once, no matter how valid they may be.
Even professional family mediator Roseann Vanella of Marlton, N.J., has found little success in dealing with elderly parents. 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 said. 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 insurance, and Vanella and her brother were on the next plane to Italy.
“After that, I said, ‘She’s never going to take him to Europe,’ but she did,” Vanella says. “I told her how bad it was for my dad since his dementia had progressed.”
Again, Vanella had to fly to Italy and bring her parents 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.”
While it may feel as if you and your parents have switched roles at times, they’re still your parents, and want to be treated with respect. “Avoid infantilizing your parents,” said Dr. Robert Kane, former director of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Good Caregiver in 2015.
“Dealing with a stubborn parent is not the same as dealing with a stubborn child. Older people should be autonomous,” he says.
“When parents are behaving irrationally, it can be tempting to threaten to move them to a nursing home against their will, or insist you know what’s best. But these tactics will only drive a wedge between you and your parents.”
When it comes to dealing with aging parents, remember this: Above all, the goal is to help your parents receive the best care possible.
You’re much more likely to get positive results by treating your aging parents like the adults that they are. This goes for simple tasks, such as helping your parents remember to take their medications, and harder tasks, like helping them get treatment for diabetes.
If your mom isn’t willing to change her behavior for herself, maybe she will for a loved one. Kane’s mother quit smoking after his sister argued that her second-hand smoke was a risk to the grandchildren.
Another approach to dealing with aging parents is to be direct about how it affects you. Communicate your worries to your parent, and explain how your anxieties will be tempered if he or she follows your advice.
If you’re angry or resentful 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, online support group or senior living advisor.
This is especially important if you are the primary caregiver to your aging parents.
No matter how deeply you care about your mom and dad, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with frustration, fear and anxiety when constantly dealing with their irrational behavior. Guard against this by caring for yourself and finding activities to help release negative emotions.
Even if your parent has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, living with any kind of memory loss can be very difficult for seniors to deal with, or even acknowledge. Helping your aging parents remember important dates eases frustration for everyone.
Is there a family celebration they want to attend that’s coming up, such as an anniversary, graduation or wedding? Bring it up. Talk about it frequently. Share in the excitement together.
Ironically, you should listen.
By paying attention to your aging parents’ needs and heeding the advice of health professionals, you can make dealing with aging parents less stressful for everyone — even if Mom and Dad don’t always listen to you.
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.