This blog was published on March 17, 2016 and updated on December 26, 2019.
Aging can be scary. Seniors often fear the unknown, including the loss of independence and the potential long-term effects of serious medical conditions. This may be why many seniors are resistant to seeking help, and are sometimes even secretive about any new symptoms they experience. Watching your parents make dangerous decisions can be agonizing. For many adult children, the shift from care recipient to caregiver sparks an identity crisis. Navigating this rocky terrain is never easy. You’ll need to keep your own emotions in check so that you can help your parents manage their needs — both physical and emotional.
When there’s a disagreement between seniors and their adult children, old family conflicts and outdated roles may rear their ugly heads. You might find yourself reverting to behavior you last displayed as a teenager, while resenting your parents for what you perceive as a long-standing pattern of bad decisions or unhealthy thinking. Disputes that are ostensibly about long-term care or moving are often really about much deeper issues.
These tips can help you manage conflict in a way that is supportive rather than pushy.
1. Be Persistent
Don’t set yourself up with the expectation that everything should be resolved in one sitting. You will probably have to bring up your concerns to your parents countless times — so be patient. Bombarding the senior you love with too much information in a single conversation can needlessly trigger their fear of losing control. And if your loved one has dementia or a cognitive impairment, they may be unable to take in too much information at once.
2. Avoid Power Struggles
Don’t push, nag, or harangue your parents. Giving ultimatums will only get their backs up, and yelling, arguing, slamming doors, and so on, could seriously damage the relationship.
3. Be Sensitive
Criticism and judgment can also put your parents on the defensive. Bluntly telling Mom and Dad that they don’t know how to manage their own lives will not win them over. Instead, stick to “I” statements, like: “I’m feeling concerned because you look like you’re losing weight and I’m worried that you’re not eating enough.”
4. Know That Timing Is Everything
Make sure you choose to have challenging conversations on days when your parents are feeling relaxed rather than depressed or anxious. That goes for you too — avoid talking when you feel particularly stressed because your anxiety will only add to their fear.
5. Stay calm
On some level, your parents may be aware that they are losing functionality, and so avoiding discussions about their future might seem safer to them than admitting to reality. Stating your concerns calmly and speaking with love and tenderness can help reassure them that a change will be okay.
6. Seek Outside Help — for Yourself
Of course, being serene and soothing may not come easily if you yourself feel frightened, helpless, and frustrated. If this is the case, please divert some of your caregiving energy to yourself and get some outside support, be it a meditation group, a counselor, or a support group.
7. Spend More Time with Them
Although you may not have scads of time on your hands, try spending a little more of it with your parents (that is, if the relationship is not conflictual). As your mother and father grow frailer, they will likely appreciate a little more attention. Your interactions might even become more harmonious if they know you are prioritizing the relationship instead of squeezing it into a hectic schedule.
8. Ask Questions
Instead of talking at your parents, it’s more to ask open-ended questions (e.g., Why don’t you want your cousin Mary to come in and fix your meals?). In a best-case scenario, this approach may allow them to reflect upon their situation, concluding that a change really is in order.
9. Come up with Solutions
Focus on addressing your parents’ concerns rather than telling them what to do. Commit to doing your research, and if you don’t have an answer, don’t make one up. The goal here is to cultivate trust and foster a spirit of mutual support and cooperation.
10. Focus on the Benefits
Always focus on the benefits of your proposed solution. For instance, if you see assisted living as the answer, emphasize the variety of social and recreational activities that these communities offer.
11. Bring in Other Siblings
Remember, caregiving is a large responsibility, one that you shouldn’t have to take on alone. If you have other siblings, ask them to talk to Mom and Dad. Just make sure that you see eye to eye on the important issues.
12. Enlist the Support of Friends
Consider setting up a family meeting that includes a close friend or neighbor. Sometimes it can be easier to hear the truth from someone outside of the family.
13. Talk to Their Doctor
If all else fails, contact your parents’ doctor and let them know about your concern for your parents’ well-being. In the end, a medical professional may be the one person whose advice your parents will heed.
14. Outline the Consequences
If your parents are still bound and determined to stay in their four-bedroom house or to keep on driving, calmly let them know about the possible consequences of their actions. Don’t frame things in punitive terms or talk to them like they’re children. Instead, remind them that their actions extend beyond the family. “Mom, I love you and want you to be independent, but I also don’t want that independence to come at the cost of killing someone else’s child with your car,” can be a potent wake-up call.
15. Don’t Count on Them Changing
Ultimately, there may be nothing you can do to change a parent's mind. Remember, your parents are grown adults who have the right to make their own decisions, and sometimes the best thing you can do is to honor their wishes.
Bonus Tip No. 1: Get Help Managing Your Own Emotions
It’s easy to judge someone else’s choices but more difficult to look at your own. Even if you’re 100 percent right in your assessment of your parents or their choices, caregiving is emotionally draining work. A support group or therapist can help you process your feelings in a healthy space so that they don’t color your decisions or harm your relationships.
Bonus Tip No. 2: Talk About Values
Many adult children head into a conversation about aging with a single idea of what constitutes the right choice. A better strategy is to talk to your loved one about their values and hopes for the future. What are their biggest concerns? What is most important to them? This turns a potentially challenging dialogue into a strategy session during which you can explore solutions that work for everyone.
The aging journey can be tough for everyone, especially when you’re worried about a senior’s safety and health. Sometimes managing the competing demands of caregiving and respecting your loved one’s wishes means choosing your battles. If your family needs extra help, a social worker, geriatric care coordinator, or elder law attorney may be able to help you explore your options.
This post was updated in December 2019.