How to Help an Aging Parent Who Refuses Help

by Dale on March 25, 2011

aging parent refuses helpDuring my speaking tours around the country, I get a chance to hear what is on the minds and hearts of adult children, the challenges that are the toughest for them to deal with.  One question I hear over and over goes something like this, “We see our parents struggling with their living situation, and we have tried every way possible to talk with them about it, but they refuse to accept help in their home.  What can we do?”

Before I offer up some suggestions, I want to take a step back and explore the situation from your parents’ perspective.

  • On a high level, the mention of services brought into the home can make your parent think, “This is the first step to losing my independence.  If this happens, what’s next?”  Whether they consciously or unconsciously have this thought, they will want to fiercely grab on to the life they know and resist any change.
  • Your parent may treasure their privacy, so even the mention of bringing a home aide or visiting nurse into their home, may be unsettling.
  • Your parent may be financially conservative, wanting to be frugal and responsible.  They’ve lived through the Great Depression.  They see their health care costs rising, and the instability of world economy.

So, with those thoughts in mind, how can we approach the conversation in a more empathetic way?

  • Begin by listening to your parent. Have a relaxed conversation away from your homes, perhaps in a park or some other peaceful setting.  You’ll be amazed at how this can break the cycle of a “stuck” conversation.  Ask a big question like, “Mom, what has been the most difficult part of aging for you?”  She’ll have to dig deep to answer that, and you’ll learn about her values, wishes and goals.  And, you will then be able to find common ground and build trust as you work together in the future, in finding the right option for your parent.
  • Observe. I share in my book and presentations about the importance of being a “detached” observer for a day or two.  Become like a quiet shadow beside your parent.   Envision yourself as a caring friend.   Watch how your parent moves, what they struggle with, what makes them happy, how they interact with their friends and the outside world.  Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed or disturbed by what you see.  By all means, do NOT jump into solution-mode.  I love this quote by James Thurber, “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.”  This is what we need to do as we seek to understand our aging parents.
  • Reach out to your Area Agency on Aging. Now that you have listened and observed, you will need to reach out and learn about options and resources.  I always suggest contacting your parent’s local Area Agency on Aging.  Every part of the country is covered by one of these agencies, funded by the federal government.  They offer a hotline staffed by trained elder advisors.  They maintain a comprehensive listing of community resources, and most now have a geriatric care manager on staff.  No matter where you or your parent are in the country, you can go to their website and plug in a zip code to get the contact information for your Area Agency on Aging.  Simply explain your parent’s need(s) and ask for assistance.
  • Reach out to a geriatric care manager. So, you’ve tried the listening and the observing.  And, you reached out to your Area Agency on Aging and gathered resources and options.  But, your parent will still not consider accepting help.  Then it is time to have a professional step in and assist.  Your Area Agency on Aging can recommend a geriatric care manager.  This professional usually has a background as a social worker or nurse.   Such individuals have the experience and sensitivity to meet with your parent in their home and do a holistic assessment (of your parent, their living environment, their support structure) and then make recommendations.  They are trained to know that each elderly person and each family are unique in their needs and wishes.  They will be able to frame their recommendations in a way that will help your aging parent understand it is in their best interest.

I hope this article helps you get “unstuck” with your aging parents.  Step back, reflect on your parent’s values and wishes, and then reach out for professional help.

I would love to hear your insight and ideas on how to reach out to aging parents who refuse help.  What has worked or not worked in your family?


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Medicaid Help in NJ April 8, 2011 at 2:17 am

Thanks for the nice tips and advices shared. Keep posting and do stay in touch with more informative posts like the same.

lildeb November 30, 2015 at 3:18 pm

I tried to have this discussion with my 80-year old father. My mother has been gone 3 years. In 2 years, he fell 3 times, each fall more severe than the previous one. The last fall resulted in 13 staples to his forehead and above. Medicatio changes have helped his balance, but he still struggles with mobility. Some days are better than others, and the better days are becoming fewer. I moved in with him after leaving a career and home in another state. Prior to my move, we’d discussed having help 1-2 x a week. The arrangement was that I’d sell my home, he’d sell or rent his out, and we’d buy a bigger one together (mine) with independent living space. He’s made some improvements especially to make his bathroom safer and finally said, “I like this, I may not WANT to move!” I said that was fine, but that I would be moving out so I could have my own space. Last week I moved into a rented condo. Now, he’s anxious and upset about 1. the cost of eating more meals out of the house because he doesn’t feel like cooking and cleaning up, and 2. the cost of having someone do this for him on a part-time basis. I moved out to my own space to preserver my sanity and force the issue. My father’s stubborness may kill him or land him in a situation where he has to make a decision…which is what I believe he’d prefer. Then he doesn’t have to take responsibility for deciding his future, it’s made for him. I do believe it’s time for professional help.

dale November 30, 2015 at 6:14 pm

I so understand what you are going through. I bent over backwards for my 82 year old mother who recently passed away of cancer. I did all in my power to ensure her choice, her independence. Sounds like exactly what you are striving for with your dad. I did hire a geriatric care manager (Jill), a former nurse who met with my mother and very professionally, compassionately explained the situation to her. We started by having Jill go with my mother to doctors’ appts and be her advocate with docs. Mom came to trust her and then began to listen to Jill’s advice. Jill helped me keep my sanity. You can call your Area Agency on Aging and ask for a list of local geriatric care managers. Interview them; you will know immediately which one is right for your dad. They charge an hourly rate…..we worked with Jill to keep her hours down.
As you are aware, as your dad ages and has more complex health issues, you will need a trusted objective advocate. You can find your Area Agency on Aging at Put in your dad’s zip code and you will get their contact info. AAA is federally funded, no charge to families for their information. I wish you the best.

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