Tips to Help an Aging—and Resistant—Parent or Loved One

In my last few posts, I described some successful family care scenarios. There was a problem (e.g., aging parent, medical issue), and everyone cooperated, made a plan and proceeded to manage things relatively smoothly. But as we all know, that does not always happen—and for many reasons.

Here’s a real-life example that reveals some of the most common ones: I received a call from Roberta, an adult child concerned about her parents who currently live independently in a condominium. Her father Eugene has some health and vision issues, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and macular degeneration. He is not very good about taking care of himself; he doesn’t always take his medications or eat as he should. And he certainly doesn’t exercise.

However, Roberta is even more concerned about her mother, Sally, who has always been the strong one in the family. They call her the lynchpin. She was the one who held the family together. Sally always enjoyed hosting holiday dinners and other family gatherings. But lately, those get-togethers have become too much for her. Roberta also sees that Sally is not keeping the condominium up as well as in the past. Often Sally appears to become rattled and a little confused in situations she had handled well in the past. Sally is the primary driver in the family because of John’s vision limitations. Roberta worries about this as well. She has seen some paint marks and a few small scrapes on Sally’s car. She wonders about her mother’s driving abilities.

Roberta is concerned about her parents and wants to help, but every time she tries to address those concerns—that maybe they should move to a more supportive environment, hire some in-home care, or see an attorney to get their paper work up to date—the will, advance directives and so on, she encounters resistance from both parents. Mom and Dad become angry and defensive and deny there is a problem. Roberta becomes upset and frustrated, and further discussion becomes impossible. What makes the situation even more upsetting to Roberta is that her brother and sister, who don’t see Sally and Eugene as often, think that Roberta is overreacting. They don’t support her at all.

Yet all of Roberta’s concerns are very valid. So what should someone in Roberta’s situation do?

The first thing to keep in mind is that any change requires cooperation from both parents. However, just because an initial conversation does not go well, it does not mean that an adult child should never bring up the subject again. Here are some approaches to consider:

  • Present specific concerns about your parent’s well-being, not conclusions. For example, “I noticed that you seemed to be overwhelmed by the thought of preparing the Thanksgiving dinner. This is something you have done so often in the past that I am concerned. What has changed?” In this scenario, you are asking a question, offering help, but not telling your parent that you think they are less competent and that this is a sign that they need to change their living situation.
  • Suggest that your parent make an appointment with his/her doctor for a complete physical. “I noticed that you seem to get tired out more easily now and I am concerned about your health. Would you make an appointment with your doctor for a physical exam—if nothing else, for my sake?” Often a parent will take advice from a doctor that they would not take from you.
  • Simply talk about what you see that concerns you, and ask your parent if they are aware of changes. “I am really concerned because I notice that things seem to be too much for you these days. Is that what you are feeling?” The important thing here is to get the conversation started. After all, your parent is probably already concerned, maybe scared, about their loss of competency.
  • Present your concerns as an expression of your love and caring—and back off if it becomes tense. Sometimes there is nothing you can do until there is a crisis. However, whatever the situation you will be able to accomplish more in the long run if you maintain a loving caring relationship.

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