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How Do You Deal With Stubborn Aging Parents?

How do you deal with a stubborn aging parent

Taking care of elderly parents is difficult, in the best of circumstances.  But, if your parents behave badly and give you a difficult time at every turn, well, the caregiving process becomes even harder.

So, how do you deal with stubborn aging parents? – Realize and accept the fact that your parents are not trying to hurt you.  Try to understand why they are being stubborn and difficult.  Treat them as the adults that they are with full responsibility for their own actions. 

The bottom line is that if your parents are of sound mind, then the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions are their own.  All you can do is help to guide them but you have to realize that you can’t force them.

Of course – I understand that this doesn’t help when it’s YOU that ends up having to bail them out of whatever situation they ended up in because of their stubbornness.  But, there’s really just not much that can be done about that.

The best tip that I can give you is to use all the resources available to you so that you are not the only caregiver.  Spreading the responsibilities amongst a group of people will make the lives of all the caregivers much easier.

Why Are Seniors So Stubborn?

When I worked with my patients, as an Occupational Therapist, I often worked with the family to get as much information about my patient as possible.  I wanted to know what that person was like before they became ill or suffered their injury.

What I saw often is that the illness or injury tended to exaggerate the person’s personality traits.  What I saw were things like…

  • If they used to be very independent, then they most likely were going to be very controlling and demanding now.
  • If they used to have little patience with others and themselves, well they were going to probably be very angry and inpatient now.
  • If they used to be very sweet and kind to others, those traits tended to be more evident now.

I coined this the “more so disease”.  However they were when they were younger, they’re only “more so” now.  Of course, this was not the case for every individual, but it certainly was what I saw in the majority of my patients’ cases.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that what you may see as “stubborn” is not actually that.  It may just be that your senior parent is frightened and scared of losing the control that they once had and were so fiercely protective of.

It’s very important that you know that their behavior is not meant to hurt you (at least most of the time).  So, don’t take it personally.

But – whatever the name of the situation is – it still presents the same. 

The bottom line is that your parent is difficult and that in turn makes your caregiving difficult as well.

Believe me, I understand.  My mother was fiercely independent and she rarely ever admitted that she was incorrect about anything.  Taking care of her as she aged was so hard that my siblings and I just came to the conclusion that this was God’s way of making it much easier for us to accept her death when it would occur.

I know, that sounds harsh but if you are dealing with an aging parent who presents as persistently stubborn and uncooperative then I think you probably know what I mean and the situation we were in.

What Do You Do When An Elderly Parent Refuses To Listen?

As I said earlier – I can give you 3 tips on how to deal with a stubborn elderly parent who refuses to listen.  These are what my siblings and I learned from our own experience in dealing with our mother who (as I said) was extremely stubborn!

1) Realize And Accept The Fact That Your Parents Are Not Trying To Hurt You

Although it may seem to you that your parents are deliberately doing all they can to make your life miserable – that truly is not the case (at least in most cases). 

I do believe that for most elderly adults who are stubborn, their issues could be due to multiple reasons.

  • they may be angry that they have lost some independence
  • they may be upset that their life has not turned out as they had hoped for (regrets)
  • they may just be the way they have always been only now, that you are caring for them, it’s more evident
  • there may be some cognitive impairment causing this behavior

2) Try To Understand Why They Are Being Stubborn And Difficult 

Listening to your aging parents (even though they may not be listening to you) is a very important part of dealing with stubborn people, whether they are elderly or not.

By listening to their fears, desires and needs you may be in a better position to speak to them and reason with them.  But, you also do have to realize that many issues surrounding matters having to do with aging are emotional.

…people are not rational about many things, especially when it’s an issue that stirs up certain emotions in them. And issues that touch on aspects of our identity, self-worth and autonomy – all of which come up when we’re concerned about older parents — are especially prone to trigger emotional responses. – Dr. Leslie Kernisan on

As Dr. Kernisan goes on to say in her article…

You may need to invite your parent to share his or her feelings by saying something like, “I really care about you, and I’d like to make sure I understand more about what you’ve been feeling about this situation.” If you can afford it, consider investing in a few sessions with a relationship therapist or another person trained to facilitate family conversations.

The bottom line is to do your best to put your own emotions aside and focus on the needs of your elderly parent.

3) Treat them as the adults that they are with full responsibility for their own actions. 

When all is said and done, your parents are adults.  That means that this is their life, their decisions and their consequences.

I know, I know – their consequences will most likely impact YOUR life.  I get it.  Believe me, I get it.

As I said earlier, my mother was extremely independent and stubborn (she always was) and yes, her decisions did eventually impact us in negative ways.  It was a hard pill for US to swallow but we just came to conclusion that no one can control every aspect of their lives.  We did our best to care for our mother because we loved her – and that was that.

BUT – we did not shy away from discussing with her the impact that her decisions had on us.  We tried to be very careful about not blaming her, we just wanted her to try to see the situations from different perspectives.

It worked – sometimes.

How Do You Deal With Stubborn Elderly With Dementia?

If your senior parent suffers from dementia AND they are presenting as stubborn – the best advice that I can give you is that you have to accept the fact that it’s YOU who has to make changes in how you approach caregiving.  In other words, you cannot expect your parents to change.  At this point, they are most likely incapable of doing that.

So, what do I mean by you changing?

  • Use proper nouns when speaking with them.  In other words, make it perfectly clear what you are talking about.  So, even though you are in the midst of a conversation about red shoes, don’t use words like “them” – instead keep using the phrase “red shoes” as you speak.  I know it is an odd way to talk but in my experience, this reduces the chances of the senior person getting agitated because they don’t understand what you are talking about.
  • Ask one question at a time.  Keep your conversations simple and easy to follow.  BUT – don’t speak to them as if they are children.  This is a fine line to walk, I know.  Don’t use “baby talk” and don’t talk down to your parents.  Just keep any questions and statements simple.
  • Don’t offer too many choices.  At the most, offer two choices.  “Would you like a sandwich or soup for lunch?”  It’s less for them to think about and process but yet still gives them the opportunity to express their independence in making a choice.
  • Keep the environmental stimulation down. An overactive environment can cause a lot of stress and agitation which in turn can make your parent seem uncooperative and stubborn.  So, having the TV on while your children are playing in the same room and you talking on the phone to someone, is not a good environment for someone with dementia.
  • Avoid the fights.  My older sister had a difficult time with this.  She would take the bait our mother laid out for her and an argument would then ensue.  Sometimes with one or both of them storming off.  My approach was to remain calm and if my mother began yelling that the lettuce I bought at the store was not good, then I would just say something like “Oh, next time I’ll try to do better.”  (Of course – my sister had spent years helping my mother so I do completely understand her frustration!)
  • Be patient.  This probably goes without saying but it’s very important that you understand that if your parent has dementia, they are not in full control of what they say and/or do.  So, be patient and be forgiving of their words and actions.
  • Listen to what your aging parent is saying.  Dementia sometimes has a way of making someone who suffers from it very introspective.  If they begin talking about their mother or father then engage them in that conversation.  Ask simple questions like “Was your mother a good cook?”  or “Did your father like his job?”
  • Endulge them in THEIR conversation.  If your elderly parent does begin speaking about friends and relatives who have since passed away – spending some time with them with a photo album and going over the memories of all these people may be a very good thing to do at that time.
  • Avoid agitating situations.  Get to know what specific situations bring about a bad behavior.  When caring for my mother I noticed that she was always worse after watching the nightly news.  I assumed that what she saw and heard on TV scared her and annoyed her (who isn’t annoyed with the news these days?).  So, we began watching movies during that time and her demeanor was better.
  • Be as flexible as you can.  Of course, if your parent has a doctors appointment, there’s not much flexibility there – you have to go.  But if you had planned to go to the grocery store and your parent is “in a mood” and is refusing to dress or go outside, then change your plans.  Or better yet, begin making plans with someone to come to the house every week so that you can go grocery shopping that day.
  • Break down tasks to smaller components.  If your elderly parent gives you a difficult time to dress in the morning – it may be useful to break down the task to smaller tasks.  So, an example would be to put on socks and shoes.  Then you could have breakfast.  Then afterwards, change from their nightgown to a dress or maybe just change their top and leave their pajama bottoms on and change that later.  It’s a longer way of accomplishing the goal but if it reduces the agitation in your parent, it’s worth it.
  • Calming music helps.  My mother loved Italian operas and that seemed to almost always put her in a good mood.  When it came time to do something she didn’t really want to do like shower or take her medication – putting that music on for about 30 minutes before the task seemed to help a lot.

At the end of the day, what’s really important in dealing with elderly adults who are suffering from Dementia is to work with them as much as you can.  Acknowledge the fact that sometimes what seems like uncooperative behavior is really YOU forcing them to do something they aren’t willing to do or don’t understand to do.

You know, most any therapist (Physical, Occupational and Speech) will tell you that when it comes to working with patients in rehabilitation that at least 50% of the job is also working with the caregivers.  It seems that rehabilitation is truly for everyone involved!

How To Get Elderly Parents To Accept Help

How did my siblings and I deal with our elderly mother who oftentimes refused help from anyone?

The 4 strategies we used in our family was:

  1. We laid down the groundwork early on by talking with each other (and our mother) about options that we could use as our mother grew older.
  2. We included our mother in as many discussions and decision making processes as we could.
  3. We went with her to any new doctor, therapy, activity, etc. to help ease her fear of doing something new.
  4. We accepted the fact that what we could not change her and ultimately it was her decision, her life.

I wrote some more details on these 4 strategies in my article What To Do When Your Elderly Parent Refuses Help.

Some additional tips I can give you is…

  • Stay calm – don’t argue with them if they are refusing help.  Again, it’s not in your control.  If they are of sound mind then it’s definitely not in your control.  They are adults and you have to treat them as such.
  • Be pragmatic – do your best to keep emotions out of it.  If they refuse to get help to care for the home – then don’t fight them but do try to appeal to what is important to them.  For example: if your elderly mother likes a clean home – then present the idea that a housekeeper once a month could do a deep cleaning.
  • Listen to your parent(s) – if you can understand WHY they are refusing help, you will be able to work with them.  Are they frightened?  Are they just being stubborn?  Is accepting help a sign of weakness to them?  Sometimes, in these situations, using an outside counselor to help you talk it through with your parents can help.  Social workers can help greatly in these situations.
  • Authority helps sometimes – some elderly adults will listen to an authority figure over their family members.  So, having a doctor or a nurse speak with your parent may help.
  • Do Not Blame Yourself – I mean it – do not beat yourself up and feel guilty for not being able to care for your parent(s) better.  You are doing the best you can in a difficult situation.  Accept that.  Help them as needed but know that they may not (probably won’t) listen to your advice so you will have to bail them out at times.  It’s just part of the process.

Let’s face it – getting older is not for the weak of heart.  It takes strength and courage to grow old and for many adults, it’s overwhelming and difficult.

So, if your parents appear stubborn and uncooperative, try to understand what is causing that.  Are they just being “moreso” of how they have always been?  Are they dealing with dementia or other cognitive problems?  Are they depressed or angry at their situation?

Knowing and understanding what the cause or causes may be will help you to accept your parents as they are.  Then, simply do the best you can to care for them.

Recommended Books

Some books that I can recommend for you on this topic are…

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