What to Do When Elderly Parents Refuse Help: 8 Communication Tips

Kim Acosta
By Kim AcostaJuly 3, 2021
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Supporting aging parents brings a host of challenges, and communication issues rank high. 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. Fortunately, the situation isn’t hopeless.

How do you help your parents accept care?

Mary Heitger-Marek, a 50-year-old program analyst from Annapolis, Maryland, like many of us, asks 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 assisting elderly parents who refuse help.

1. Understand their motivations

Aging is a difficult process for virtually everyone. Many older adults are living with dementia or mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Learning how to tell an elderly parent they need help through incorporating their feelings 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 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 identify the best way to make positive changes.

2. Accept the situation

Although you have your parents’ best interest in mind, the reality is that they are 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.

3. Choose your battles

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 phonesjoin 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.

4. Don’t beat yourself up

Even professional family mediator Roseann Vanella of Marlton, New Jersey, has found little success in 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 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 the 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 [again],’ but she did,” Vanella says. “I told her how bad it was for my dad since his dementia had progressed.”

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 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.”

5. Treat your aging parents like adults

While it may feel as if you and your parents have switched roles at times, assisting elderly parents who refuse help is easier when you acknowledge them and treat them with respect.

“Avoid infantilizing your parents,” says Dr. Robert Kane, former director of the Center on Aging (now the Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation) at the University of Minnesota, 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,” he says.

When it comes to assisting elderly parents who refuse help, remember this: Above all, the goal is to help your parents receive the best care possible.

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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, such as helping them get treatment for diabetes.

6. Ask them to do it for the kids (or grandkids)

If your parents aren’t willing to change their behavior for themselves, maybe they 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 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 he or she follows your advice.

7. Find an outlet for your feelings

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, online support group, or Senior Living Advisor.

This is especially important if you are 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.

8. Include them in future plans

Including your aging loved one in future plans may help motivate them to receive needed care. 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 elderly parents remember important dates eases anxiety 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. Put it on the calendar. Share the excitement.

What to do when aging parents refuse 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 are coming from a place of love and care.

By paying attention to your aging parents’ needs and balancing those against the advice of health professionals, you can make assisting elderly parents who refuse help less stressful for everyone — even if mom and dad don’t always take your advice.

Kim Acosta
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Kim Acosta

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