8 Tips for When Your Aging Parent Refuses to See a Doctor


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

You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who actively enjoy going to the doctor, no matter their age. But when you’re trying to help a parent with their health, having them refuse to see their doctor can be particularly difficult. It can be even more so if a diagnosis is necessary to determine a treatment plan. If you suspect your parent has signs of dementia, a neurological, medical, and cognitive evaluation is necessary to rule out any other possible causes. Without that evaluation, you are in the dark about how to proceed.

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As a concerned and caring adult child, you want what is best for your parent. Without medical information and guidance on best treatment practices, the job of a caregiver is very challenging. How can you help if you don’t know what to do? What if your parent could feel better with appropriate medical treatment?

This problem is more common than you might think. There are, however, some tried and true techniques to either convince your parent to go to the doctor or accept some alternatives. Wrap-around services don’t replace a doctor’s visit, but they can provide a safety net.

Can You Force Your Parents to See a Doctor?

The short answer to this question is “no.” You can’t force someone to do something against their will. And it is important to remember that any kind of physical coercion could be considered elder abuse or assault. If someone is of sound mind and not under guardianship, they have the right to refuse medical treatment, even if it is detrimental to their health. 

Even under guardianship, someone cannot be forced to go see a doctor or accept medical care. A forceful approach may damage your relationship and make it that much harder in the future to help your parent stay safe. As hard as it is to accept, people have the right to make their own decisions even if you don’t agree. 

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Tips for Encouraging Your Parent to Go to the Doctor’s Office

Taking a calm and measured approach to the problem will keep everyone’s anxiety level to manageable levels. Put the situation into context. If there is a crisis, you can call the emergency response system. Unless your parent has advance directives explicitly stating they do not want medical intervention, your parent will be transported to the emergency department for evaluation.

Our tips will give you the best chance for success, and even if they don’t work there are other support services available to keep your parent safe. If your parent refuses help, then there may be nothing more you can do except to come back and try again another day.

1. Find out why

The first thing to do is try to find out why your parent doesn’t want to go to the doctor. If you can find out the reason why, you might be able to solve the problem. Listen calmly and carefully to pick up any cues. Avoid taking a heavy-handed approach.

For people with dementia, going to the doctor, or anywhere for that matter, can be frightening and overwhelming. For others, there may be a fear of finding out what is wrong.  Perhaps your parent doesn’t like the doctor or is afraid to get their blood drawn. Maybe they think that more medications will be prescribed and they are on too many already.

Assure your parent that you will help advocate for their point of view.  In the event that your parent isn’t able to give a reason, try some of the following alternatives.

2. Offer to find a new doctor

Even if someone is not willing to admit they don’t like the doctor, this suggestion is worth a try. If your parent’s doctor is male, offer to find a female. If your parent is in assisted living, there may be an option to switch to a house call doctor who comes to the community, making it far easier to access. The doctor might even be willing to “drop by” to see your parent.

Many older adults have had the same primary care physician for years. You may hear your parent say: “what’s the point of going? It’s the same thing every time.” Choosing a geriatric physician is preferable for many reasons.

Geriatric physicians understand the complex medical and emotional needs of older adults. They also generally spend more time with their patients and have developed an empathetic bedside manner that resonates with older adults.

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3. Negotiate

Try to entice your parent to go to the doctor by offering something pleasant in return. This might be going out to eat, a drive to the park, or some other special treat.

Let your parent know that doctor’s visits will be infrequent and that the two of you can discuss when visits are absolutely essential and when they are not. A collaborative approach might lend itself to a more cooperative conclusion. 

4. Ask someone else to try

Someone else might have better luck convincing your parent to go to the doctor. This could be another family member, clergy, a close friend, or an elder law attorney. You might even go so far as to ask the doctor’s office to call your parent and explain the reasons it is important to come in. Sometimes the authoritative voice of the physician will do the trick.

Suggest to your parent that someone else take them to the doctor such as another member of the family or a friend. Your parent might be embarrassed to have you at the visit, but they don’t want to tell you.

5. Consider telehealth

In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has exploded. As people are confined to their homes or senior communities, it is the only way a doctor can interact with a patient. There are challenges, to be sure. The first one is the technological requirement of accessing telehealth services. If your parent is at home, you can assist with this. If they are in assisted living it can be more difficult unless there is a caregiver who can help.

You may be thinking: “what can be accomplished with telehealth?” It turns out there is a lot that can be achieved in a telehealth visit. With help, a patient can undergo a neurological exam, or do a mental status exam. If there is a blood pressure cuff in the home, blood pressure readings can be given to the doctor. A pulse ox will provide an oxygen reading.

A telehealth visit also allows the physician to see the patient face to face and to interact. A good physician will pick up on visual cues that might indicate weight loss or dehydration. A conversation with your parent will reveal any thinking or reasoning disturbances. 

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6. Try home health

If your parent qualifies, home health can be a huge support. Home health doesn’t take the place of a doctor, but it might be the next best thing. Home health is time-limited and can also be covered by Medicare. 

Home health includes the services of a nurse, physical and occupational therapist, respiratory therapist, and speech therapist. A nurse comes in at least weekly and can check vital signs and report those to the physician. They can do wound care, diabetic checks, and do blood draws. These days, home health companies are doing more and more medical care that used to only be done in hospital settings. 

7. Try home care

Home care differs from home health in that the services provided are non-medical. Since home care is privately paid, there is no limit to hours or days that caregivers come in. Caregivers can provide companionship, and help with bathing, dressing, cooking, and shopping. Your parent might become close with a particular caregiver and you can enlist that person to help convince your parent to go to the doctor.

The other advantage of home care is having another set of eyes and ears on the situation. They can keep a log of any changes they notice like increased issues with mobility, or problems eating or drinking. Caregivers can pick up on medication problems like inconsistent compliance or difficulty with medication set up. 

Sometimes medical events can be avoided by intervening early to address these issues. Dehydration can be addressed by asking the caregiver to reinforce greater fluid intake. Caregivers may not be able to administer medications, but a nurse can come in to set up the medications and caregivers can give reminders. These are just a few examples of how support services can keep someone healthier.

8. Letting go

At some point, you may have to let go of trying and accept the situation. As hard as this is, it might be easier for you and your parent. And who knows, if you try again at a later time you might be surprised to have success.

It’s Not the End if Your Parent Refuses to Go to the Doctor

When your parent refuses to go to the doctor, it puts you in a difficult position as a trusted family member and caregiver.

Remember to take a deep breath and don’t panic. Remember that your parent has free agency to make their own decisions. Maintain the integrity of your relationship by offering support, care, and compassion. 


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