When an Aging Parent Gives Up: 12 Things You Can Do

Updated

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

As a caregiver or concerned adult child, it can be frustrating, demoralizing, and heartbreaking when your aging parent gives up. From your perspective, giving up is not a reasonable or healthy choice. Giving up signifies weakness and hopelessness when you can see that there is so much more that your aging parent could do to improve their life.

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To truly help your aging parent, you will need to try and see things from their perspective. When you can empathize with their situation, you will be in a better position to make suggestions or changes so that they can start to enjoy life again. If your aging parent is at the end of life, then giving up is not necessarily a negative act but one of self-compassion and the acceptance that life is coming to an end. So, as you can see, what your aging parent is experiencing makes all the difference. 

Why Do Aging Parents Give Up?

You can’t possibly know what aging is like if you aren’t there yet. You have a life that might be rich with friends, work, family, and faith. Your health is good, your mind is clear, and you can manage despite inevitable struggles. 

Aging is a very individual process, but some characteristics and changes happen to most people. As your parent ages, their life may change gradually or with a series of mini-crises that lead to a more rapid decline. Let’s look at some of the circumstances that can lead to aging parents giving up.

Declining physical function. Even if your parent has been healthy and active their entire life, some decline is inevitable. For aging adults who have not maintained their physical health, this decline can be swift. Loss of muscle mass and aerobic capacity, coupled with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, or diabetes (to name a few), can lead to a decline.

Physical function is necessary for almost everything that anyone does independently. Dressing, bathing, shopping, driving, cooking, and housework all require physical ability. When your aging parent loses some of those abilities, they become dependent on others for day-to-day help.

Loss of independence. A decline in physical function is the loss of independence and growing dependence on others. If your parent stops or restricts their driving, this has a significant impact on their ability to access family, friends, and activities. 

Sometimes it’s the small things that begin to affect a person’s morale and mental health. For example, the family moves away, or retirement means a lack of purpose, direction, and identity. Don’t underestimate the significance of losing the role that your parent once had, whether it was a career or raising a family or both. 

Limited social interaction and opportunity. As your parent’s life starts to shrink and constrict, the unfortunate consequence can be social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness has been found to have serious physical and mental health implications for older adults. You may be thinking that your visits are enough to sustain your aging parent. They might not be. Losing friends and the ready-made social environment of employment, church, and parenting are not easily replaced. 

Pain. You may not think of chronic pain as a reason that an aging parent gives up. Aging brings arthritis, degenerative processes, neuropathy, back pain, and more physically painful conditions that can cause depression, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness.  

Cognitive problems. Not every aging person will get dementia or other cognitive problems, but many will. Even minor changes in thinking and organizational ability can be distressing.

What Are Some Signs That an Aging Parent Is Giving Up?

One of the challenges of recognizing signs that an aging parent is giving up is culturally ingrained ageism. Many of our stereotypical beliefs about aging can make it hard to accept that changes, although perhaps inevitable, do not have to lead to hopelessness. Early recognition can lead to early intervention. Some signs can alert you to the possibility that your aging parent is giving up. 

What they say. What your aging parent says, sometimes barely noticeable, can tell you a lot about their mental state. Listen for these statements, “I am ready to die already.” “My life is useless now.” “I am no good to anyone anymore.” These are common statements that are easy to brush off as not serious. Try and pay attention to what your parent says and how they say it.

Depression. Symptoms of depression in older adults can present differently than in younger people. One difference is the word itself. Your parent may not be comfortable using the word “depression” because of the stigma of mental health problems for their generation. Instead, look for the common signs of depression, including hopelessness, despair, poor sleep, fatigue, loss of appetite, and lack of interest in activities they used to find enjoyable. 

Poor hygiene. Not taking a shower or keeping up with shaving, hair, and other physical attributes can be a sign of giving up. Notice whether or not your parent has clean clothes and whether they’ve shaved, had their hair done, and bathed. 

Not keeping up with household duties. One of the key signs of an aging parent giving up is when they stop taking care of their home. Household duties can include cleaning, maintenance, shopping for groceries, doing dishes, and other tasks.

Declining interest in physical health. Declining interest or flat-out refusal to maintain physical health can be a sign of giving up. Examples include refusing or having no interest in going to doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, or other interventions likely to improve physical function. There might be a complete disregard for healthy dietary habits or a refusal to take medications as prescribed.

How to Deal With an Aging Parent Giving Up on Their Physical Health

Dealing with an aging parent giving up on their physical health will be a challenge, but if you can tackle this problem, everything else may fall into place. Without physical health, it is almost impossible to manage other parts of life. One of the barriers to improving physical health is a lack of understanding of how mental attitude affects performance. 

Effort is tied to success, and this can be a hard concept to understand. Even as a long-distance caregiver, you can take these positive steps. 

1. Enlist a physical therapist

Physical therapists are skilled and experienced at working with older adults who require patience and consistency. A physical therapist is part practitioner and part coach. Plus, they typically come to work with your parent up to three times a week. The downside is that their involvement (unless paid privately) is time-limited. But their collaboration might be enough to give your parent a spark of motivation to continue once the physical therapy is finished. 

2. Use motivational videos

There are hundreds of motivational videos that show older adults (some of them 100 years old!) and what they can do. The idea is not to make your parent feel like they can’t possibly live up to what some folks are doing, but showing them that physical achievements are possible at any age.

3. Suggest an online class

Vet online classes for something that is within your parent’s capability. Some classes use chair exercises and are very basic for beginners. If possible, do the classes together to get started or enlist the help of a grandchild to get things going. 

4. Encourage walking

If your parent can walk safely, it’s one of the best exercises someone can do. Ask one of your parent’s friends to join in for extra motivation or go yourself to begin with. Some senior centers and assisted living communities have regular walking groups.

5. Use encouragement rather than fear tactics

Setting the smallest goals possible so that your parent can feel that they have achieved something is a good start. Reinforce any positive efforts, and encourage them as they go along. Fear tactics or making them feel guilty is unlikely to work well and might have the opposite effect. 

6. Remove barriers to medical appointments

If you aren’t able to coordinate medical appointments, hire someone to help. You want to make it as easy as possible for your parent to attend important health appointments. In-home caregivers or geriatric care managers can assist with getting your parent to the doctor and ensuring that concerns are addressed. 

7. Hire in-home caregivers

In-home caregivers can provide the coaching and encouragement to keep your parent’s health on track. They can accompany them on walks, reinforce physical therapy exercises, help with gardening, and take your parent to a class.

How to Deal With an Aging Parent Gives Up on Other Parts of Their Life

Once you have identified the other parts of life that your parents are giving up on, you can tackle those. Try not to overwhelm your parent, and take small steps to help them improve the parts of their life that they have given up on. 

8. Treat depression

If your parent seems depressed, take steps to help treat it. Talk with your parent’s doctor about the possibility of medication. Counseling via video is widely available and can help create the space for your parent to talk openly about their frustrations and sadness. 

9. Encourage social connection

Being shut off from the world is not healthy. If your parent is confined due to physical or cognitive constraints, teach them how to use technology. By being online, the world can open to them in ways they never thought possible. Think about their interests and help them find groups that align with those interests and their values.

For some older adults, learning technology will take time and patience. Try not to get frustrated with slow progress, and use repetition to reinforce learning. 

10. Reach out to friends

If your parent has friends they have lost touch with, encourage them to reconnect. Offer to provide transportation if necessary. Most churches will send clergy to the home if your parent goes to church, but you have to ask. 

11. Suggest help with home tasks

Suggesting hiring someone to help with home tasks might not go over well, or it might be the impetus for change. Your parent may not want to admit they can’t or won’t take care of household duties. At least offer the idea of hiring someone to fill in the gaps and see how it goes. 

12. Accept but keep trying

After everything you have tried, you may have to accept it if your parent still wants to give up. But be on the alert for any opportunities to try again. Things might turn around when you least expect it, and you will want to be ready to respond. 

When An Aging Parent Gives Up

When an aging parent gives up, there is hope for improvement. Try and be empathetic to their situation, and make suggestions and create opportunities that are consistent with their situation. In time, you may observe some small changes. Reinforce those and continue to work on helping your parent feel better about themselves.

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