Your Aging Parent's Making Poor Decisions: What Can You Do?

Updated

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

There may be no more frustrating yet heartbreaking experience than when your parents make poor decisions. Part of the dilemma is that you and your parents may have very different ideas about what defines poor decisions. For you it may be obvious, but not so for your parents. 

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As your parent’s age, their changing emotional and mental state can slowly erode the ability to make safe and sound decisions. Your role in this problem is tricky and delicate because your parent has a vested interest in retaining autonomy and independence, even at the risk of compromising safety and well-being.

How do you know when and the best way to intervene? As a concerned child, you can see what needs to be done, but your parent refuses your help. In fact, they may resist to the point of becoming angry and making even worse decisions. And sometimes, poor choices are defined as not choosing to do the right thing at the right time.

When Should You Be Concerned About Your Parent’s Decision-Making Skills?

Here is where there could be a significant difference of opinion about what constitutes concerns. You may have had the experience of your parents minimizing or denying their apparent deficits. One way to define and explain to your parents what you observe is to follow these suggestions about when to be concerned. 

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Cognitive impairment

If you notice either of your parent’s cognition changing, this should be cause for concern. If at all possible, have a professional evaluation to rule out dementia. If your parent has dementia, the progression of the disease is likely to worsen decision-making to the point where you’ll have to intercede. 

One preemptive step you can take is to assume that your parent will at some point have limited capacity to make decisions, which is why caring for aging parents involves pre-planning and advance directives. 

Safety concerns

Safety concerns are not as quickly defined as you might think. If your aging parent has mobility problems and refuses to use a walker, that choice might increase their fall risk. To your parent, the decision not to use a walker is appropriate and is an acceptable risk.  

If your parent wanders at night or leaves the stove unattended, those can have serious consequences. You should be concerned about your parent’s decision-making capacity if incidents like this are occurring with frequency. 

Refusing care

Refusing care is very common among older adults, at least at first. But when safety becomes an issue, you will be concerned. For example, if your father needs help getting to the bathroom or has continence problems and refuses help, those decisions put him at risk for falls and infections. 

Not eating

Weight loss, spoiling food, or lack of food in the house are reasons for concern. The best way to check for potential problems with buying, cooking, or eating is to look closely at the kitchen when you’re there. Open the cabinets and fridge. If your parents aren’t eating, it could be a sign of dementia or depression. 

Not attending to home maintenance

It is common for aging parents to start to delay or not keep up with some home maintenance tasks, but pay attention to these signs:

  • Neglect of safety issues such as electrical, roofing, and plumbing problems
  • A yard overgrown with weeds and not mowed
  • Inside of the home is cluttered and not clean (unless that is the norm)

Driving

Driving can be a sensitive subject and one that might involve significant resistance to giving it up. Discouraging an aging parent from driving can take finesse and evidence that driving is a safety risk to your parent and to others.

Look for these signs to make your case, and if your parent still refuses to give up the keys, you might have to take additional steps:

  • Frequent accidents or fender benders
  • Problems with judgment such as understanding road signs or poor driving decisions such as running stop signs or going the wrong way on one-way streets
  • Speed control issues such as driving too slow or too fast
  • Getting lost in familiar areas

Finances and vulnerability to financial exploitation

There are two potential decision-making issues here. One is an inability to manage finances; the other is vulnerability to financial exploitation and scams. Each of these issues can occur separately or together. 

Warning signs of poor financial decision making:

  • Bills aren’t paid in a timely fashion or at all
  • Confusion about accounts and passwords 
  • Sums of money disappearing to fraudulent sources such as mail and phone scams or paying for work that doesn’t need to be done
  • Your parent pays sums of money to a nonrelative like a caregiver or “girlfriend.” 

How to Deal WIth Your Aging Parents Making Bad Decisions

Dealing with your aging parent making bad decisions is more about you than about them. It is about coping and acceptance. The stress of trying to convince, persuade, and encourage your aging parent to make better decisions can be overwhelming. Here are some suggestions on how to live with poor decisions while maintaining the integrity of your relationship with your parents.

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Try to understand where your parents are coming from 

Perhaps fear, anxiety, loss of control, and independence cause your parents to make bad decisions. Your parents might have significant anxiety and fear about loss of control and autonomy. 

Accept the situation

Do what you can and acknowledge that every plan you make and every discussion you have may fail. Accepting that you haven’t had the impact you had hoped for is hard but necessary. You might need to take a breather and come back at another time to try and help.

Don’t blame yourself

At some point, people have the right to make bad decisions. You don’t have the entire responsibility of your parents on your shoulders. You can only do so much. Blaming yourself leads to guilt and shame. 

Talk to someone about your frustrations 

Talking with someone about your frustrations can give you perspective and understanding. You might be surprised to find out you’re not alone with this problem. Consider talking to a friend, other family members, or a therapist. 

How to Talk to Your Parents About Making Bad Decisions

Talking with your parents about making bad decisions could go several ways. Be mindful of protecting the integrity of your relationship. Pushing your parents away will only leave you with fewer options than before. Approach all discussions with kindness and respect, and your chances of success will improve.

Choose your battles and negotiate

Arguing about how your mom doesn’t keep the place clean is probably not a priority. Choose the most critical safety issues, and try to prioritize topics for discussion. Negotiate by offering a trial period of home care or someone to take over maintenance, for example. Ask your parents what they are willing to do, even if it seems small and insignificant to you. One small agreement might be an opening to other good decisions. 

Ask them to do it for you (and your siblings)

Some adult children consider this as the last option because it is the “guilt card.” But it can work. Be honest about how their bad decisions are affecting your stress level. Let your parents know that you care about them and have a high level of concern about the consequences of their choices.

Treat your parents like adults

Try and treat your parents like the adults they are, even though you may be struggling with their decisions. Use a respectful tone and a calm approach that honors their capabilities. 

» MORE: Everyone needs a will. Everyone also needs to pass on other things too. We make it easy--create a plan today.

 

Be persistent but not annoying

Keep trying, but pick your times and give your parents some space. Sometimes they may simply need some time to think things over. Constant badgering is only likely to make things worse. Gentle prodding might be a better approach. 

Give choices

Few people like to be told what to do. By giving your parents choices, you help them feel in control. For example, you could say, “Would you prefer to try some in-home help or tour some assisted living communities?” Or “Should we do home delivery of meals and groceries or hire someone to shop and cook for you?”

What Can You Do When Your Parent Can No Longer Make Decisions?

What to do when your parent can no longer make decisions is a tough choice. You’ll want to scrutinize the reasons so you can take an informed path forward. If your parent has dementia, you may need to take some significant steps to protect them for the future.

Take a step back

How can you give up when you care so much? Sometimes you will have to walk away and accept the consequences if you’ve tried everything you can think of. Chances are, something will happen that will change the situation. It might be a crisis, but hopefully, at that point, you can do something to help.

Hire someone to check in on your parents

If your parents allow it, a private caregiver or geriatric care manager can check on their status. Should the situation worsen, you can consider intervening steps, including making some decisions without your parents’ full permission.

Establish Health care and financial power of attorney

Hopefully, you have done this already, but if you haven’t, you should. To advocate for your parents during a health emergency or obtain medical records, you need some kind of legal authority. The same holds true for finances. At some point, you may need to take over bill paying, and you’ll need the legal authority to do so.

Consider guardianship

Guardianship should be the last resort and isn’t a magic solution. But if your parent has dementia and their lack of capacity affects their safety and estate, this step might be necessary. With guardianship, you can manage financial accounts and protect the estate against fraud and waste. But forcing your parents to move or accept help is an ethical issue and could result in a damaged relationship.

Aging Parents Making Poor Decisions

The stress and strain of parents making poor decisions can be all-consuming. Helping your parents make better decisions will take time, but don’t compromise your own health in the process. Do what you can, but accept the outcome. 

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