What Can You Do When Your Aging Parent Refuses Help?

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and Certified Master Guardian

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For an aging parent, help can take many forms, from assistance with end-of-life planning to finances and personal care. Sometimes the need for help starts slowly, by providing some assistance with a big household chore. Other times a medical emergency means you have to jump in immediately. 

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If you have a parent with cognitive impairment this can lead to difficulty in managing finances or financial exploitation. Physical and mental decline can often require in-home care or perhaps a move to a senior living facility. 

Talking to an aging parent about needing help can be a challenge. When they refuse help, you can be left feeling frustrated and helpless about what to do next. Sympathizing with your parents by looking at the situation from their perspective may help you communicate more effectively. 

Stuck in a rut with your aging parent and unsure what to do? The following tips may assist you when your parent refuses your help.

1. You Are Still The Child 

It can be tempting to just take things over when your parent needs help. You might want to focus on solving the problem and get things back on track. Try to resist this urge, because it can cause more problems than solve them.

Imagine yourself in your parent’s shoes. Your child is undermining your authority and dismantling your efforts. Would you let that happen without saying something?

Take a collaborative approach that acknowledges your parent’s independence and autonomy. When an aging parent starts to need help, there is a slow realization that they are becoming more dependent, and they don’t want to be a burden on their children, or want to become your child.

Communicate in an empathetic way that acknowledges the fact that you are still an adult child and that your parent has authority. This authority implies that your parent can make their own decisions. While you don’t need to present everything as a choice, giving them the option to provide input can help level the playing field. You might not always be happy, as they have the opportunity to even make decisions you may not agree with.

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2. Start Planning Early

It is never too early to start conversations about advanced planning. Talking to your parent about this can save time, and reduce stress later for you both. Responding during a crisis without knowing what your aging parent wants will make things that much harder. 

If you are at the beginning of this process, it might help to start by discussing end-of-life wishes. You can prepare by looking at and printing advance directive forms specific to your state.

Part of the discussion can involve difficult decisions about medical interventions such as feeding tubes or artificial breathing. Under what circumstances would these be acceptable? Talk about funeral planning, other healthcare wishes, and estate planning.  

Discuss future care needs and preferred options. Also, talk about the costs associated with those needs. Is your parent willing to consider assisted living or do they want to remain at home?

In addition, it is not unusual for an aging parent to be reluctant to share financial information. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to discuss options can be very helpful in this case. When your parent needs help, having access to and understanding their financial situation will help everyone to make informed decisions. It can also be helpful to have a third party address any questions or concerns that either of you may have.

3. Always Show Respect

No one likes to have a conversation where they feel like their opinion is not valued. By showing respect, you have a much better chance of being heard. Getting angry or upset is counterproductive and will cause a defensive reaction that may be hard to get past.

Listen thoughtfully. Resist the urge to interrupt or jump in with your own ideas. Remember, you are still the child in their eyes and your parent wants respect from you.

The fact of the matter is, self-determination means they are entitled to make bad decisions. The most important thing, in the end, is to be supportive of your parent’s wishes and help carry them out to the best of your ability.

4. Don’t Be the Bull in the China Closet

Rushing in to help your parent is a normal response to a pressing problem. However, in the rush, you might accidentally break the china on the way. Take a breath and calm down if you can. Think things through before you talk to your parents about needing help. Organize your thoughts and manage your emotions before the meeting. It can help to come in with a level head.

Approach the conversation in a collaborative way.  Suggest something such as, “We have a problem, so let’s work on this together to find solutions.” 

Enlist siblings or other trusted family members to help. Strategize with any other family members before meeting with your parents. Working with everyone can help avoid people veering off course and derailing the purpose of the conversation. Be united, but focused. 

5. Be Honest But Calm

Honesty is always the best policy when working with your parents in this specific situation. Lying or being deceptive to convince aging parents they need help may end up backfiring on you. It will breach the trust that you need to get cooperation and may cause lasting damage to your relationship.

Be clear about the problem you are seeing, but don’t overemphasize the problem which may cause panic or add hyperbole to insist on action. As mentioned above, you may want to state your concerns with care, empathy, and calm. Recognize your perception of the problem may be entirely different than theirs. 

Acknowledge that your parent may have anxiety about the fact they need help during this trying stage in their lives. Anxiety tends to cloud judgment. If you are calm, your parent will be more likely to be calm as well.

6. Choose Your Timing

Deciding when to meet and discuss the need for help is an important consideration. You know your parent best, so think about when they seem to be at their most alert and responsive. 

For people with cognitive impairment, mornings are often a far better time to have any kind of discussion. Sundowning is a common condition where people with dementia are more confused and anxious later in the day. If your parent meets this description, plan on meeting in the morning.

Consider involving other siblings if possible and strategize a time to meet that isn’t during a full-blown crisis. Though it can feel like having a spontaneous discussion at the right time could be better, but don’t use that as an excuse to avoid the subject indefinitely. 

7. Anticipate Denial

Denial from your family member about needing help can be almost inevitable. If you go into the situation knowing this, you will be better prepared. 

Denial that there is a problem can be a sign of fear of losing control and independence. It is also a powerful defense mechanism that can distort reality in ways that can be hard to understand. It is not unusual for an older impaired adult to minimize or outright reject what you can clearly see with your own two eyes.

Fighting with your parent about what you know is going on may result in a hardening of their resolve. Be patient and empathetic. Take a gentle and measured approach that will allow for some penetration of those defenses.

8. Be Prepared with Solutions

Your intent matters. It can be important to prepare yourself, as you likely want to avoid venting about seemingly endless problems with your parent. Your anxiety about the situation will only make things worse. Come prepared with ideas on how to address the problems you are observing. Go into the discussion with clear and achievable plans.

Engage your parent in the problem-solving process. Ask them for their opinions and ideas. You may want to anticipate some resistance based on the financial costs of care. If possible, be prepared to address those cost concerns by offering to pay yourself or finding another way to help offset those costs. 

9. Show a Willingness to Compromise

Sometimes one small step is enough. You want to solve the big problem, but accept that several little steps along the way might get you there. 

Here are some possible suggestions to bring up with a parent:

  • If your parent needs in-home care, suggest a trial period of in-home caregiving. For example, two to three hours a day one day a week, with the option to cancel at any time.
  • In the case where a move to assisted living makes more sense, tour a few places. Then, pick a preferred place and suggest a respite stay. Some senior communities have the option of up to a month in a furnished room without obligation. 
  • Consider home health paid for by Medicare. If your parent qualifies, this can be a time-limited option to introduce the idea of help in the home. This also helps to address financial concerns.

10. Come Back Another Day

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day! And it is unlikely your parents' problem will be solved in a day either. Try not to feel as if you have to fix everything all at once. This can be a real challenge during a crisis, but take a deep breath and proceed with caution.

If the discussion gets heated or contentious, end things on a positive note. Sometimes, trying to resolve conflict only makes things worse. Make a diplomatic exit and come back another day to try again. Change the subject to something pleasant before leaving.

Let your parent know you understand how difficult this is. Make sure to remind them that you honor their feelings and opinions, but that you want to continue the discussion. Schedule a time to come back.

Helping an Aging Parent is About Small Steps

When your aging parent refuses help, know that you are not alone, as this can be a common problem faced by most adult children at some point in their lives.

Be kind, caring, and patient. Aging is a natural process that happens to everyone, and we all require help at different times during our lives. In the end, remember that caring for willful parents can be stressful, but it can be rewarding if you give your best effort. 


Sources

  1. Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D., Sundowning: Late-day confusion. Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/sundowning/faq-20058511 
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