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What To Do When Elderly Parent Refuses Help

How To Deal With Parents Who Refuse HelpCaring for an elderly parent can be difficult but even moreso when they are resistive to your attempts to help them.

So, what can you do when your elderly parent refuses help? – The strategies we used in our family to deal with our difficult mother was to:

  1. Lay the groundwork early by discussing options that we could use as our mother grew older.
  2. Partner with/include our mother in the decision making process.
  3. Reduce their fear by being with them (at a new doctor, therapy, activity, etc.).
  4. Accept that it is their decision and their life.
  5. Manage your own stress.

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.

How Do You Deal With A Stubborn Elderly Mother?

Many caregivers know that they can talk reason until they are blue in the face but it doesn’t always work.  As a very good friend always tells me, “You can’t reason with crazy.”  She’s absolutely right. 

When you begin any conversation thinking that YOU are correct and the other person is WRONG – well, the likelihood of reaching a compromise is very minimal.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that there are many reasons why an elderly person is “stubborn”.

  • they’ve always been that way – it’s their personality
  • they are angry, resentful and lonely (very common among elderly)
  • they are scared of losing more independence, more control over their lives and fearful of facing their own mortality
  • if they are losing their hearing they can feel removed from the family and social groups
  • cognitive decline issues such as dementia and Alzheimer’s

So, when dealing with a stubborn elderly mother or other senior loved one it’s important to know WHY they are being stubborn and to work from there.

1) If they’ve always been that way – well – there’s no changing them.  Accept that their decisions are their own and they will end up facing the consequences of those decisions.

2) If they are angry, resentful and lonely – listen to them, try to get them to express what they are feeling and why.  Don’t judge them, accept what they are feeling and just keep asking questions.  Help them to work through their feelings and to essentially answer their own questions and solve their own issues.

3) If they are scared – again, listen to their fears, help them to express what they are feeling and thinking.  If you can get them to accept some counseling from a therapist or their clergy – that might help. 

4) If they are losing their hearing – if hearing aids don’t work then set up situations where they are not in a loud restaurant or crowded room.  Make sure that you and others speak to them directly in a quiet environment so they can hear.  Work to include them in every conversation – don’t assume they heard you.

5) If they are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s – again – there is not much that you can do except to redirect them to other topics and do your best to do what needs to get done.  So, if they refuse their medication – talk to your doctor or nurse about ways to hide that medicine in food or drinks, etc.

How To Get Elderly Parents To Accept Help

These following strategies are from my (and my sibling’s) 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 “more so”.

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.

Here are 5 tips that I can share with you that helped us to deal with our elderly mother’s resistance to help.

1. Lay The Groundwork Early

One of the first things we did that 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. Partner With/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.

Another angle to consider is asking your parent’s doctor, close friends, or other relatives they are close to for help in pleading your case. Sometimes parents won’t listen to an adult child because they see the person as the actual child they once were, so hearing another trusted individual say the same thing the child is saying may help.  “Sometimes hearing the need for additional help from an outside source can help your parents really hear what is being said and therefore may also make them more open to your help,” says Christina Steinorth, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships.

One last thing: remember that 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 ride share 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 my mother 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.

5. Manage Your Own Stress

There are several things that you can do to manage your own stress when you are caring for an elderly parent who refuses your help.

  • When you are helping to care for a stubborn elderly parent, the first thing to do in order to help reduce your own stress is to divide the responsibilities between you and your siblings (if any). If you find that it is difficult to start the conversation, we have some tips in our article, How To Talk To Siblings About Aging Parents – A Step By Step Guide.
  • Of course, if you don’t have siblings – the next step then is extended family, friends, your church, etc. My point is that you MUST reach out for help. This is the time to do it.I have a little secret for you – when my husband passed away many people would say something like “call me if you need help”. But one friend told me, “Most people want to help, they just don’t know how. So give them an assignment, some way, any way small or big to help.”I can’t tell you how helpful that little tip was. Asking friends to do things like go grocery shopping, taking my pet to the vet, etc. was so helpful for me and for my friends who did want to help – but as she said – didn’t know how.
  • Next, get your head out of the stress by taking time for yourself. Even if your stubborn parent lives with you, there are ways to “get away” for a little while.
    • Set up a corner of your bedroom as a reading nook or place to watch a movie
    • schedule lunch with friends
    • join an exercise class or a walking group

    Whatever activity you decide on, make sure it is something that you will look forward to – don’t make it another obligation that you will end up resenting.

  • Stay socially connected with friends. Even just looking forward to having lunch on an upcoming Saturday with those you care about can be enough to help you get through a difficult day. Plus, being able to air your concerns and frustrations will lower your stress levels.
  • Protect your own health by keeping up with dental visits and seeing your family doctor for regular check ups. You aren’t going to be able to help your stubborn parent if you neglect your health and end up sick.
  • Eat a healthy diet. It can be tempting to grab fast food because you are on the run or too worn out to cook nutritious food, but that’s not good practice over the long term. If you don’t have time to plan a recipe, run out and shop, etc, there are meal services, such as Blue Apron, that will send the food to your home. All you have to do is cook it (recipe and food is included)!
  • Think about hiring in home help for your parent (or for you, if you are spending a lot of time caring for your parent).
  • An option that most caregivers don’t take full advantage of is Hospice.  I know it’s an emotional decision to consider this option but the truth of the matter is that the services Hospice provides can help both your senior parent AND yourself in so many ways. 
    The nurse who cared for my mother told us that some of her patients were with her for 3 years – so your parent does NOT need to be on their deathbed for you (and them) to take advantage of the amazing benefits that Hospice can give you.  Read more here about how Hospice can help you and your elderly parent.

Books About Difficult Parents That We Recommend

In Conclusion

These 5 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.

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What To Do When Your Elderly Parent Refuses To Move – Here are 12 tips to help you with the difficult task of helping your aging parents to make the best decision possible about where to live safely and comfortably.

How To Talk To Siblings About Aging Parents – A Step By Step Guide – In this article, we will explore the sensitive but often necessary topic of asking your siblings for help with caretaking for a senior parent. We’ll go into more detail on the steps above and discuss your options for dealing with a stubborn sibling. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have all the info you need.

What Is Guardianship Of An Elderly Parent? – Guardianship of an elderly parent is a legal relationship created by the court. It gives an individual the right to care for a person who is unable to care for themselves. The guardian is responsible for the welfare and safety of the senior.

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