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What To Do When An Elderly Parent Refuses Medical Treatment

When an aging parent refuses medical treatment, the first step is to discuss their fears, explain the consequences of avoiding care, and ensure they’re comfortable with their doctor to encourage acceptance of medical help.

When an older parent refuses to go to the doctor, the three most important factors that each family member must consider are…

  1. Is your elderly parent cognitively competent?
  2. If yes, then as a competent adult they DO have the right to make their own decisions and refuse medical treatment.
  3. If not, then a primary caregiver can take over the decision making for their healthcare needs.

This situation often requires delicately balancing their autonomy with their health risk, especially in emergency situations.

Understanding Your Parent’s Refusal

Older adults may refuse medical treatment due to various fears and concerns, such as fear of pain, side effects, or finding a new health problem. 

In these cases, it’s important to ensure they are comfortable with their doctor, which might involve seeking private doctors or specialists in the medical field for a second opinion.

Here are some key factors to consider:

Common Fears and Concerns

I know older adults who refuse to get the flu shot because many years ago, when they did get the flu shot, they became ill.  

That one negative experience left a lasting impression on them and now they fear getting the shot again. 

Other common fears and concerns include:

  • Fear of pain and side effects: Many seniors have negative experiences with medication or medical procedures, leading to concerns about the discomfort and potential consequences of treatment.
  • Fear of finding a new health problem: It’s not uncommon for older adults to avoid going to the doctor’s office because they fear the bad news of a new diagnosis or potential worsening of their condition.
  • Loss of independence and control: Giving up control over their health and daily routine can be frightening for older adults who value autonomy.
  • Financial worries: The cost of treatment, potential loss of income, or burdening family members financially can be major concerns.
  • Misunderstanding the diagnosis or treatment: Lack of clear information or misinterpretations about medical conditions and treatment options can lead to distrust and resistance.
  • Religious or cultural beliefs: Some traditions may hold specific views on healthcare, end-of-life care, or specific treatments, influencing their decision.

My mother’s main concern was that she did not like her primary care physician so we looked for a new doctor.

We looked for one that spoke Italian or Spanish, which made it much easier for my mother to communicate with him/her.

Addressing Misunderstandings and Beliefs

In my experience, the best way to overcome misunderstandings and address religious or cultural beliefs, it’s important to listen attentively and validate your parent’s fears.

You can also try to involve a trusted family member or friend or someone your parent sees as an authority figure who shares similar views as your parent.

It’s essential to provide reliable information from credible sources about a medical problem they may be having and encourage them to ask questions.

One of the best things you can do to address your elderly parent’s refusal of medical treatment is to communicate effectively and ensure they have all the necessary information.

Some strategies include:

  • Take time to listen: Allow your parent to express their concerns, fears, and beliefs without judgment or interruption. Have an open mind when actively listening.
  • Provide clear explanations: Make sure your parent understands the diagnosis, treatment options, potential outcomes, and the consequences of not seeking medical help.
  • Involve their doctor: If possible, involve your parent’s physician in the conversation to address any questions or concerns directly. Be specific about any treatment plan and if possible, include them in the decision making process.
  • Consider alternative treatments: Explore alternative therapies that align with your parent’s beliefs and values, while also ensuring they receive appropriate medical treatment.

Importance of Empathy and Patience

  • Remember that this is a difficult and emotional decision for your parent. Be patient, supportive, and avoid forcing or pressuring them.
  • Focus on building trust and open communication, demonstrating that you understand their concerns and are willing to work with them to find the best solution.
  • Acknowledge their right to make their own choices, even if you disagree with their decision. Your role is to offer support, information, and guidance, not to control their decisions.

By understanding the underlying reasons for your parent’s refusal and approaching them with empathy and respect, you can create a foundation for constructive dialogue and help them make informed decisions about their health care.

Exploring Alternative Options

While respecting your parent’s decision to refuse or delay specific medical treatment is crucial, it’s equally important to explore alternative options to ensure their well-being and quality of life.

Here are some avenues to consider:

Seeking Second Opinions and Different Perspectives

In situations where your parent is cognitively competent, they have the right to make their own decisions. 

But, in extreme cases, where there’s a significant health risk, it might be necessary to involve external resources like a mobile crisis team.

These teams can assess the situation and provide immediate assistance, especially in emergency situations.

Involving patient advocates or a medical expert can help in explaining the importance of diagnostic tests and treatments, ensuring decisions are made in the patients’ best interest.

  • Consider specialists with different backgrounds: If the initial diagnosis came from a general practitioner, consulting a specialist in the specific area of concern can provide a more targeted perspective.
  • Seek a doctor aligned with your parent’s values: Some doctors may adopt a more holistic or conservative approach to treatment, which might better align with your parent’s preferences.
  • Focus on clear communication: When seeking a second opinion, ensure your parent actively participates in the consultation and asks questions to understand the new perspective.

Considering Holistic and Complementary Therapies

While not a substitute for conventional medical care, certain holistic and complementary therapies can complement treatment plans and enhance quality of life for your parent.

  • Explore options like acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, and meditation: These techniques can manage pain, anxiety, and fatigue, promoting relaxation and a sense of well-being.
  • Discuss dietary changes and nutritional supplements: Consulting a qualified nutritionist can help identify dietary adjustments or suggest complementary supplements that support their health and energy levels.
  • Remember, transparency is key: Discuss any complementary therapies your parent wants to explore with their doctor, ensuring potential interactions or contraindications with existing medications are addressed.

By exploring these alternative options alongside open communication and collaboration with your parent and their healthcare team, you can navigate this challenging situation with greater clarity and peace of mind.

Building a Support System

Navigating your parent’s refusal of medical treatment can feel overwhelming, and it’s crucial to recognize that you don’t have to face this alone.

Building a solid support system can provide invaluable assistance, emotional strength, and practical help throughout this challenging journey.

Engaging Family and Friends

Family and close friends can be your closest allies. Share your concerns and ask for their help:

  • Emotional support: Lean on them for a listening ear, encouragement, and emotional guidance. Sharing the burden can alleviate stress and help you cope with difficult decisions.
  • Practical assistance: Divide responsibilities such as meal preparation, transportation to appointments, or household chores, allowing you to focus on essential tasks and spend quality time with your parent.
  • Advocacy and communication: Family members can help advocate for your parent’s wishes, communicate with healthcare professionals, and ensure their needs are understood and respected.

Geriatric Care Managers: Professional Help for Complex Decisions

For complex situations or when additional professional help is needed, consider the expertise of a geriatric care manager. They offer a range of services:

  • Care coordination: They liaise with doctors, specialists, and home care providers to create a comprehensive care plan tailored to your parent’s needs and preferences.
  • Financial and legal guidance: They can assist with navigating insurance policies, government benefits, and legal matters related to long-term care.
  • Emotional support and resource navigation: They offer emotional support for both you and your parent, guiding you towards relevant resources and community support groups.

Seeking Spiritual and Religious Guidance

For many seniors, their faith and spiritual beliefs play a significant role in their outlook on health and end-of-life decisions.

Consider seeking guidance from:

  • Religious leaders: Their counsel can offer comfort, spiritual support, and help align decisions with religious values and traditions.
  • Faith-based communities: Support groups and resources within religious communities can provide connection, understanding, and practical assistance.
  • Respecting individual beliefs: Remember, spiritual perspectives are deeply personal. Be open to listening and understanding your parent’s needs within their faith context.

Building a support system requires proactive engagement and open communication.

Be clear about your needs and expectations from each member, express your gratitude for their assistance, and remember that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Remember, a strong support network can make a significant difference in managing the challenges and finding solace throughout this journey.

Finding Shared Ground: Working On Difficult Decisions Together

Facing your parent’s refusal of medical treatment can feel like navigating a delicate path between honoring their autonomy and ensuring their well-being.

Finding common ground amidst differing perspectives is crucial to fostering cooperation and ensuring the best possible outcome.

Prioritizing Quality of Life: Comfort and Well-being Above All

Shifting the focus from treatment solely as a means to cure towards prioritizing comfort and well-being can pave the way for shared decision-making.


  • Symptom management: Explore alternatives to alleviate pain, fatigue, and other challenging symptoms, prioritizing their quality of life even if a cure isn’t pursued.
  • Personal preferences: Discuss their daily routines, activities they enjoy, and what contributes to their sense of happiness. Integrate these preferences into care decisions to maintain normalcy and enjoyment.
  • Open communication: Regularly check in and communicate openly about their needs, preferences, and any changes in their condition.

Shared Decision-Making: A Collaborative Approach to Care

Empowering your parent through shared decision-making fosters trust and collaboration. This means:

  • Providing clear information: Ensure they understand the diagnosis, treatment options, and potential consequences of each decision. Encourage questions and address any uncertainties.
  • Respecting their values: Consider their religious beliefs, cultural background, and personal values when exploring possible solutions.
  • Finding compromises: Collaboratively identify approaches that align with both their wishes and healthcare recommendations, seeking middle ground where possible.

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