My mother accomplished amazing things during her life. She survived the bombings in Sicily during WWII, she moved to Venezuela and then America and learned to speak both Spanish and English fluently. She survived an abusive marriage and raised 4 children through poverty and at times, homelessness. She worked 2 jobs for 30+ years, day in and day out.
But that resilience and headstrong personality worked against her when she grew older. She refused help from everyone and that made it extremely difficult for us (her children) and medical personnel to care for her.
So, what can you do when your elderly parent refuses help? – The 4 strategies we used in our family to deal with our difficult mother was to…
- Lay down the groundwork early by talking with each other (and our mother) about options that we could use as our mother grew older.
- We included our mother in as many discussions and decision making processes as we could.
- We went with her to any new doctor, therapy, activity, etc. to help ease her fear of doing something new.
- We accepted the fact that what we could not change was ultimately her decision, her life.
These following strategies are from my (and my siblings’) experience with my mother who was a very strong willed (yes, stubborn) and argumentative person. That was her personality always, so as she grew older it only became “moreso”.
Although, until the very end, my mother would initially fight off any help we did win many battles with her through patience and reasoning. We knew she was a very pragmatic person and we used that to help us to help her.
1. Lay The Groundwork Early
What helped us with our mother was to begin the discussion of what options could be available for her care years before it was needed. I’m talking something like 10 years beforehand. When she turned 75 and was still very healthy (and working still) we started planting the seeds of the types of care that could be utilized.
We also started asking as many questions as we could. Oftentimes she would answer one and then dismiss us, not wanting to talk about it any more.
But, we kept it up and slowly, over the years we were able to get her to start thinking about her options.
Don’t get me wrong, it still didn’t make it easy when the actual time came. But we like to think that she wasn’t as resistant as she would have been if we had not been talking to her about this topic.
In fact, in her early 80’s she fell and injured her shoulder. The doctor recommended home care physical therapy – but when the PT arrived my mother refused to open the door. She pretended to not be home and it took a few weeks before we could get her to let the PT in and begin therapy.
But, knowing my mother – we are sure that if we had not been conversing with her for years – she probably would have never opened the door for that PT.
2. Include Your Elderly Parent In The Decision Making Process
If your parent is difficult – you may find yourself wanting to do things for them “behind their back.” Things like decluttering small spaces thinking they will never notice, taking the car in for maintenance (while they’re taking a nap), sneaking decaf coffee into the coffee can, etc.
Honestly, you might get away with some of these things but eventually, it may just catch up with you and then you’ll be dealing with distrust issues.
The best solution here is to take a deep breath and include your parent(s) in the decision making process of everything that affects them. Of course, if your aging parent is suffering from any form of dementia or Alzheimer’s then this strategy does not apply.
But if they are of sound mind – it’s best to include them – listen to them – and if they don’t agree with you right away – at least you’ve introduced the concept(s) and now you can give them time to think it over.
Decisions like decluttering their environment, downsizing to a new home or assisted living facility or maybe even moving in with you, making modifications to the home to make it safer, etc. are all very big (and emotional) decisions for most seniors. So, give them time to consider them, adjust to them and finally to accept them.
3. Reduce Their Fear By Being With Them
I tend to think that most people who are angry, argumentative and generally “nasty” are that way because they are living with some kind of fear. And most seniors are fearful. I know my mother certainly was.
Fearful of what the future holds, fearful of their dwindling capabilities, fearful of new technologies, etc.
What helps to ease these fears is if you can participate in the activity with your elderly mother or father. The kinds of things I’m talking about are…
- Using a rideshare program like Uber or Lyft.
- Going to a Rehabilitation clinic for the first time.
- Going to the hospital / clinic for any kind of testing (cognitive, physical, etc.)
- Being at home with them when the maid or home aide comes for the first time (or second or third).
These types of activities can all be very scary for someone who feels that they are slowly losing control of their body, mind and life. So, having someone there with them can help to relieve that fear and help them to accept the assistance.
4. Accept That It’s Their Decision – Their Life
My siblings and I would grow extremely frustrated with our mother. There were some situations where we could not get her to budge, no matter what.
Three-quarters of adult children and two-thirds of older parents reported that the parents acted stubbornly sometimes, while two out of five children and one in five parents said the stubborn behavior occurred often, according to one study. – Forbes.com
For at least the last 10 years of her life she suffered from anxiety which manifested in intestinal problems and heart palpitations.
She refused to believe she had anxiety and instead would run to the hospital’s ER believing she had a blocked bowel or was in the midst of a heart attack. Each visit resulted in no physical problems and although many physicians recommended anti-anxiety medication – my mother would refuse it.
And this cycle just went on for years.
We could not convince her to take that medication and we had to just come to the conclusion that this was her decision, her life. We could not control it or control her.
Of course, this meant that we had to live with that as well but we all worked on distancing ourselves emotionally from her “tantrums” so that we would not become enveloped in them. It worked quite well and we were all able to eventually see her episodic dramatic situations for what they were – anxiety attacks that we knew would resolve in a few hours.
Books About Difficult Parents That We Recommend
- “When I Need Your Help, I’ll Let You Know” (And Other Senior Myths That Can Lead To Disaster)
- Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A Guide For Stressed-Out Children
- How To Deal With Difficult Aging Parents: A Relationship Guide For Stressed Out Adult Children
These 4 strategies helped us to help our mother as best as could possibly be expected. It’s extremely difficult to try to help someone who simply refuses any help.
But when it’s your parent – how can you back away?
We all loved our mother and took care of her until the day she died, at home, just as she wanted. She fought us, and hospice until the very end but knowing her personality, we have to admit, we didn’t expect any other outcome.