The parent/child relationship is a complex one, and often becomes more so as the parent ages and the caregiver roles are reversed. It’s not easy to support a parent who is going through this experience. And it’s even harder when they consistently refuse help.
When trying to persuade an elderly loved one to accept help — either from you or from a professional caregiver — you’ve probably found that navigating personalities, anxiety, shame, frustration, and plain old stubbornness can be exhausting and highly stressful.
However, there are steps you can take to negotiate a care plan that works for both you and your loved one.
Step 1: Understand the Situation: Why is your elderly parent resisting help?
It can be very difficult to understand why an elderly parent may vehemently refuse help, especially if the need is evident. But, try to understand the experience from their point of view.
Aging is scary. There is a mountain of stigma around aging that touches on every aspect of a person’s being — from physical appearance, strength, and resilience to mental acuity and cognitive decline. The unavoidable changes that accompany aging stir up all kinds of feelings and fears. With their ability to move freely through the world further diminished, an elderly parent might feel frightened, helpless, frustrated, and/or angry.
There is also a very real and deeply felt sense of grief that accompanies aging. Sometimes without knowing it, people are mourning not only the loss of personal independence and freedom, but also the loss of opportunities and experiences that they are realizing they will never have.
If you are feeling frustrated and angry with yourself, because your aging parent is being stubborn, or even aggressive about pushing away your offers of help, try to understand where they are coming from. And then try to come to the situation with empathy, kindness, and patience.
Step 2: Accept the Situation: Your parent is a grown up.
You’ve seen the signs. You know it’s time. Your aging parent requires care with their living space, performing daily activities, managing their medication, or supporting any one of many other areas of their life. You’ve done the research and the due diligence. The case is clear cut to you. You believe that your parent now needs to accept help – and you may very well be right.
However, the reality remains that your parents are adults who are entitled to make their own decisions about how they live their lives and whether or not they are ready to accept help from you or anyone else.
The bottom line is you don’t get the last word. And while that can feel frustrating, accepting that reality can also help reduce your stress by helping you manage your expectations and take a more realistic view of your role.
Step 3: Manage the Situation: Use smart communication strategies.
It’s hard to have a productive conversation on a sensitive topic when you’re in the middle of a crisis. Instead, look for the right moment — one in which both you and your parent are relatively relaxed, not under too much stress, and are in a strong enough place in your relationship to be honest and open with each other.
Once you’ve chosen that moment, remind yourself that the reason you’re broaching the subject is that you love your parent and want the best for them. Don’t let other aspects of your relationship — past or present — trigger your impatience.
Remember — your parents are adults, not children.
Everyone talks about how caregiving often creates a role reversal as the children become the adults and the aging parents become the children. While there are some parallels to be drawn between the switched roles, that analogy isn’t exactly accurate. Infantilizing an aging parent by keeping them in the dark, condescending to them, or patronizing them is a recipe for disaster. It is not only disrespectful and hurtful, it also creates a power dynamic that isn’t good for anyone involved.
Keep the positive front and center.
Aging can come with a lot of baggage — regrets, loss of independence, fear of what’s going to happen next. It’s important as you walk alongside your parent on this journey that you do whatever you can to recognize and focus on the positives. This strategy is not about “toxic positivity,” which invalidates people’s true feelings. It’s about making sure you don’t miss any opportunities to shine a light on all the good things that are still part of your parent’s life — maybe good friends or loving grandkids or the ability to get outside or a continued passion for a lifelong hobby. Find joy in the small things.
Switch the focus from them to you.
Instead of always focusing on the benefits your parent will reap if they accept the care and help you’re offering, reposition your argument to help them understand what it will mean to you if your parent will agree to whatever you’re proposing. You can explain how much you worry about them being on their own or engaging in semi-dangerous behavior (like smoking or driving or failing to take medication). You can let them know how much it would help you find peace of mind if you knew that they were getting the extra help they need. In some instances, you might refocus on how your aging loved one’s choices affect their grandkids — letting them know that their grandkids want them there at their graduation or wedding or other special event.
When someone is facing the unknown, scared and unsure, they may start to feel like they’ve been backed into a corner and don’t have any power to make their own decisions. People in this position are rarely open to advice or demands. They tend to dig their heels in even deeper in an effort to preserve whatever freedom of choice they still have.
Instead of steamrolling into your parent’s life and making all kinds of demands and ultimatums, approach the situation as a collaboration. Focus on their wants and needs, not what you assume is best. Ask open-ended questions. Listen. Offer multiple solutions for their consideration rather than taking a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. It’s all about working together as a team, weighing the pros and cons, and coming up with a middle-ground solution that works for both of you.
You can’t do everything at once — choose your battles and start small.
No matter what age you are, change is hard. So, your aging parent is likely feeling overwhelmed enough by all the changes that come with getting older – and probably will not be too excited or enthusiastic about adding more new things into the mix.
It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be able to solve all the issues in one fell swoop. A much more productive approach is to pick your battles and — most importantly — start small.
Understand which issues are the most critical, and then find ways to make initial inroads into addressing those concerns. For example, instead of coming on too strong with a plan that involves a professional caregiver moving in, maybe look for ways you can start gradually taking things off your parent’s plate by doing some light housework, running errands, offering to drive to appointments, or maybe having a caregiver come in one afternoon a week.
Assemble a support team to help make your case.
Sometimes you will hit a roadblock that you just can’t get past on your own. Even though you’ve used all your powers of persuasion, your parent is refusing to even consider whatever you’re suggesting. When this happens, you may want to consider calling on outside allies and experts to help you get your point across in a more effective way.
This might mean asking someone else your parent trusts — a friend, physician, spiritual leader, care professional, etc. — to have a conversation with your parent. It might mean calling a family meeting with siblings or other relatives to discuss the issue and see who might be willing to step up and help impress upon your loved one all the reasons why your plan is a good one. Sometimes, it just takes hearing things said in a slightly different way or from a different person to bring your parent around.
Be prepared to offer a little tough love if needed.
In some cases, the strategies outlined above aren’t enough. No matter what you say or how you say it, your elderly parent still refuses to acknowledge that you might have a point. When this happens, you might need to provide a little reality check. This shouldn’t be delivered in a way that suggests you are judging or punishing them. If anything, it should be delivered with an extra helping of compassion and empathy. It’s okay to admit that you’ve reached the end of your patience trying to explain why you think your solution is the best option, and then follow that with an explanation of why you think it’s so important.
This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.
Being a caregiver in any capacity is not a once-and-done proposition. It’s a role that gets deeper and more complex the longer you’re in it. You need to set the right expectations and pace yourself for the long haul.
While you’re working hard to provide care and support for your loved one, it’s equally important to ensure you have the care and support you need for yourself. Enlist the support of others — family members, people from your parent’s social circles, and professionals you think can help — to share the burden of convincing your loved one to accept the help you’re offering.
It’s also important to give yourself an outlet for your own worries, frustrations, and anger. Keeping negative emotions bottled up will only harm you, your relationship with your parent, and your ability to provide the care you want for them. Identify which friends and family members are willing and able to provide the emotional support you need. Consider seeking community help like a support group or professional help from a therapist or counselor.
Like your parent, who is facing all the change that comes with getting older, you will be facing the change that comes with taking on the responsibility of being a caregiver. There will be good days and bad days on this journey, but try to remember that you are on it — for better or worse — together.
One last word of advice: Even if you feel like you don’t have any time available, do what you can to spend a little more time with your parent. When you make time for them, your parent will feel seen and appreciated. They will feel less like a burden, and more like someone who is loved.