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 fear 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When there’s a disagreement between seniors and their adult children, old family conflicts and outdated roles may rear their ugly heads.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 to be 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. The following tips can help you manage conflict in a way that is supportive rather than pushy.
18 General Tips for Dealing With Stubborn, Aging Parents
1. Be persistent.
Patience and persistence go a long way toward making conversations productive. Don’t go in with the expectation that everything should be resolved in one sitting. You will probably have to bring up your concerns to your parents numerous 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 — pick your battles.
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. Instead, empower your loved one by making them a part of every decision-making process. Validate their emotions and show them that you value their opinions.
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, such as, “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.
Productive conversations never happen when everyone is feeling stressed out or exhausted. 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 facing some new challenges, 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 change will be OK.
6. Seek outside help — for yourself.
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 much extra time on your hands, try spending a little more of it with your parents (that is, if the relationship is not a source of conflict). As your parents continue to age, 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, talk to them by involving them in the conversation. Start by asking 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 and conclude 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 scheduling 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 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 hurting someone because of a car accident you cause” 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.
16. Try to understand the motivation behind their behavior.
When approaching your loved one, listen not only to what they are saying but also to what they may not be saying. For example, they may be afraid to move to assisted living because they are worried about making friends. They may be resisting visiting the physician because they fear what their doctor may say about their condition. Many times, fear or anxiety is the underlying culprit of their behavior.
17. Accept the situation; don't beat yourself up.
It is difficult to watch your loved one face challenges caused by aging, especially if they are not receptive to help. However, you can only do so much convincing and pleading to change their minds or to get them to explore new options. Work with your own counselor or support group to accept the situation for what it is and know what you cannot change (and what you can).
18. Treat your aging parents like adults.
Your parents are still your parents, and it can feel jarring to them and to you if you begin treating them like the child in the relationship. Remember that your parents are adults and they deserve to be treated as such. During your conversations, focus on empowering them and giving them plenty of choices and input into every decision.
Understanding and Managing Aging Parents — Specific Examples
Anger, Hostility, and Outbursts
If you are met with anger or hostility when you approach your loved one about your concerns, it can feel like a personal attack. However, the more you know about the potential causes for that anger, the more you can not take it personally and get any follow-up care your loved one may need.
If your loved one has always been a bit cranky or set in their ways, challenges of aging will typically only amplify those traits.
The aging process is not easy and can cause frustration in seniors. Having a bit of empathy and putting yourself in their shoes can soften your approach and help you not take any attacks personally. When possible, take a break from your caregiving roles through respite care solutions so you can re-enter your role with a relaxed perspective.
Sometimes, anger and stubborness can turn into abusiveness. Here is why that can happen and how to face it in your caregiving role.
Abusive behavior occasionally occurs in older adults. Sometimes, this behavior stems from a mental health issue that your loved one has lived with for years. In this case, you may already have some coping skills in your personal mental health toolbox that can help you navigate the situation. Other times, abusive behavior is new. This can indicate a change in mental health or cognition.
Try explaining how their behavior makes you feel. You can also leave the situation as long as your loved one is safe before you go. Finally, consider respite care to give you the break you need and deserve.
Refusing to Shower or Bathe
Refusing personal care, especially showering or bathing, is quite common in older adults, especially if they are living with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.
There are a variety of reasons why your loved one may be refusing to shower. It might feel too vulnerable or scary for them, and declining vision or cognition can only increase that fear.
Work with your loved one’s physician to determine what could be causing the resistance to showering. It could be a mix of anxiety and depression, or it could be a part of their dementia progression.
Consider helping your loved one remain modest in the shower by using towels to maintain privacy. Waterless shampoo and soap is also a good way to maintain good hygiene while skipping a shower every once in a while.
Using Inappropriate Language or Making Offensive Comments
Cognitive decline is often the reason behind seniors making offensive comments or using inappropriate language. However, it can still be jarring for adult children or caregivers to hear, even if they’re aware of the source.
When seniors begin using new inappropriate language or offensive comments, it is often because they are in pain, frustrated, or reaching a new stage in their cognitive decline. A sudden personality change could also point to an infection.
Ignoring the behavior can often solve it right away. You can also call out the behavior and say you do not like it when they do that. However, if your loved one has dementia, it is important for you to note that they will likely not be able to remember your direction or consequences.
Paranoia, Delusions, and Hallucinations
It is startling to watch your loved one experience delusions or paranoia. Cognitive decline is often the reason why it happens, but you may also find that your loved one is experiencing a medication side effect.
Medications can cause paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions. Be sure you speak to your loved one’s physician or pharmacist to talk about these types of side effects. Dementia and infections, such as a UTI, can also cause this type of behavior.
Work with your loved one’s medical team to discover the underlying cause of the delusions or paranoia. Once you are able to discern if it is a dementia side effect, an infection, or a medication issue, you can begin to make the appropriate changes.
When you hear the word hoarding it is easy to think of a seriously dangerous situation that makes it onto television shows. However, hoarding doesn’t have to be cinematic to be something serious to contend with. It can range from keeping clutter in a drawer or refrigerator to creating a fall hazard with boxes lining the hallway.
The compulsion to hoard, or collect items, can stem from dementia as well as anxiety. It can point to a need for control or a desire to save memories, or it can just as easily be an instinct caused by cognitive decline.
Have small cleanout days once a week when you go into your loved one’s home and quietly remove items. Be sure to check the fridge and cabinets if your loved one hoards food because doing so can cause sanitation issues in the long run. If your loved one has dementia, creating a rummage drawer or box full of small items can often dampen the urge to hoard.
Refusing to Accept Care
If your loved one simply refuses to let you help at all, they are likely feeling embarrassed about their declining health or increasing needs. They may also not want you to take on that burden.
Speak candidly with your loved one so you can find ways they will let you help. It can also be helpful to get your loved one’s physician and counselor involved in the conversation. In many cases, your loved one may accept help from others more easily than from you, so begin to look at home care or senior living solutions that will provide the help they need.
Extreme Frugality or Overspending
It is common for older adults to worry about outliving their money, especially when they are on a fixed income. Unfortunately, this anxiety can sometimes lead to dangerous behaviors such as refusing to turn on the air conditioning or skipping certain medications.
Work with your loved one and their financial advisor to develop an “essentials” budget that includes items that keep them safe. If you feel that your loved one is making poor financial decisions because of dementia, get their physician involved.
Senior living can often offer a wonderful solution for older adults and their loved ones, but it can be overwhelming as you begin to explore your options. Download our free resource, “The Journey to Senior Living: A Step-By-Step Guide for Families,” to educate yourself more about the senior living process.