20 Tips for Dealing with Stubborn, Aging Parents

Q. Both of my parents suffer from chronic health problems. Their home has a lot of steps and is 800 miles away from us. For years, I have begged them to move near me to a housing community with caring support. Instead, they stayed in Florida and bought a different home with a pool and yard. They also acquired a pup. Several falls (some from walking their new dog) and multiple surgeries ensued. They still refused to hire help for either themselves or for caring for their house or their pet. My father is struggling more than ever, and my mother has been hospitalized twice in the past year and is now in rehab. They plan to move in with me after being discharged, but they are both still vowing not to have outside help. Of course, I want what’s best for my parents, but I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. How can I get them to listen to me? Thanks for your help!

A. I am sorry about your difficult situation. If it’s any solace at all, you are not alone. Researchers from Penn State University, the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, and the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine found that 77 percent of adult children believe their parents are stubborn about taking their advice or getting help with daily problems.

As you know, dealing with senior parents can be frustrating, especially if they refuse your assistance or advice. However, if you can find a way to communicate with them that helps them maintain their own autonomy and independence, you can convince them to make the healthiest decisions possible.

New Northwestern University Training Curriculum Helps with Stubborn Parents

A group of researchers at Northwestern University recently developed a training curriculum on negotiation and dispute resolution for social workers, care managers, and health care professionals who regularly work with resistant older adults. Materials for family caregivers are being developed, too. Most of the tips come directly from conflict resolution and negotiations in the business world, yet they also apply to resistant seniors!

Lee Lindquist, chief of geriatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, is leading the project in an effort to de-escalate conflicts and make it easier for older people to receive needed support. One aspect of the project that has not been released yet is a computer-based training program for family caregivers of people with mild cognitive impairment or early-stage dementia. The program, called NegotiAge, features avatars of older adults and allows caregivers to practice negotiation techniques under different scenarios. Nearly $4 million in funding for the project comes from the National Institutes of Health. After evaluating the program’s effectiveness, Lindquist hopes to make NegotiAge widely available. We will keep you updated on this program as more details become available!

In the meantime, below are 25 tips from the Northwestern University study and other sources on the best way to deal with stubborn, aging parents: 

  1. Prepare in advance: Preparation is essential for any type of negotiation. According to Jeanne Brett, professor emerita of dispute resolution and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and a member of the NegotiAge team, “You want to think through answers to several fundamental questions: What issues need to be addressed? Who are the parties invested in these issues? What are the parties’ positions on each of these issues? Why do you believe they’re taking those positions? And what’s going to happen if we can’t reach an agreement?” It’s helpful to write down answers to these questions in a planning document. Be sure to include yourself among the parties and spell out your goals for the conversations to come.
  2. Look for common interests: Negotiations have the best chance of success when they address the interests of all the parties involved, Brett noted. She says, “Don’t adopt an adversarial approach. Rather, emphasize that you’re on the same team. The goal isn’t for one side to win; it’s for people to work together to find a solution to the issue at hand.”
  3. Ask questions: Don’t assume you know why your parent is taking a certain position (“I don’t want to go to the doctor”). Instead, ask follow-up questions, such as “Why?” or “Why not?” If an older person snaps, “I don’t want to talk about it,” don’t back away. Acknowledge their discomfort by saying, “I understand this is difficult,” while adding, “I care about you and I want to know more.”
  4. Think about solutions: Focus on addressing your parents’ concerns rather than telling them what to do. Commit to doing your research and, if you don’t have an answer, don’t make one up. The goal is to cultivate trust and foster a spirit of mutual support and cooperation.
  5. Focus on the benefits of your proposed solutions: Always focus on the benefits of your proposed solution. For instance, if you see assisted living as the answer, emphasize the variety of social and recreational activities that these communities offer.
  6. Stay calm: On some level, your parents may be aware that they are facing some new challenges, so avoiding discussions about their future might seem safer to them than acknowledging their evolving reality. Stating your concerns calmly and speaking with love and tenderness can help reassure them that change will be okay.
  7. Make sure your loved one feels heard: Start difficult discussions with open-ended questions: “What are some things you’re having issues with? What are you doing that you wish you could be doing differently? What would make your life easier?” Listen carefully and make sure the person feels heard and respected.
  8. Brainstorm strategies that can help solve the problem at hand. Get creative and put lots of options on the table. Invite your parent to respond and ask “Why?” or “Why not?” again as needed. Don’t expect to agree on a strategy right away. “You can say, ‘Let’s bring in Mom and talk about this later,’ or, ‘Let’s think about this and check in with each other next week,’” Lindquist suggested, noting that many negotiations take time and can’t be rushed.
  9. Be sensitive: Criticism and judgment can put your parents on the defensive. Avoid bluntly telling your parents that they don’t know how to manage their own lives, as that will of course not win them over. Instead, stick to “I” statements, such as, “I’m feeling concerned because you look like you’re losing weight and I’m worried that you’re not eating enough.”
  10. Bring in someone else: If you have siblings, schedule a family meeting to talk about your concerns or ask them to talk to mom and dad. Just make sure that you and your siblings are on the same page with regard to the important issues. If all else fails, bring in a third party or a trained mediator to help! 
  11. Seek outside help — for yourself: Dealing gently with stubborn aging parents may not come easily if you are feeling anxious and frustrated yourself. If this is the case, try to divert some of your caregiving energy to yourself and get some outside support, be it a meditation group, a counselor, or a support group.
  12. Patience and persistence go a long way toward making conversations productive when dealing with aging parents. Don’t go in with the expectation that everything should be resolved in one sitting. You will probably have to bring up your concerns to your parents numerous times — so be patient. 
  13. Have multiple conversations: Bombarding the senior you love with too much information in a single conversation can needlessly trigger their fear of losing control. If your loved one has dementia or a cognitive impairment, they may be unable to take in too much information at once. Consider splitting the conversation into multiple conversations. 
  14. Avoid power struggles: Don’t push, nag, or harangue your parents. Giving ultimatums will only get their backs up, and yelling, arguing, slamming doors, and so on could seriously damage the relationship. Instead, empower your loved one by making them a part of every decision-making process. Validate their emotions and show them that you value their opinions.
  15.  Know that timing is everything: Productive conversations never happen when everyone is feeling stressed out or exhausted. Make sure you choose to have challenging conversations on days when your parents are feeling relaxed rather than depressed or anxious. Be sure you aren’t overly stressed either.
  16. Spend more quality time with your parents: Your interactions might even become more harmonious if they know you are prioritizing the relationship instead of squeezing it into a hectic schedule.
  17.  Talk to their doctor: If all else fails, you might want to try to contact your parents’ doctor(s) and let them know about your concern for your parents’ well-being. Understand that the doctors may not be able to talk to you because of privacy rules. In the end, a medical professional may be the one person whose advice your parents will heed.
  18. Try to understand the motivation behind the behavior: When approaching your loved one, listen not only to what they are saying but also to what they may not be saying. For example, they may be afraid to move to assisted living because they are worried about making friends. They may be resisting visiting the physician because they fear what their doctor may say about their condition. Many times, fear or anxiety is the underlying culprit of their behavior.
  19. Don’t beat yourself up: It is difficult to watch loved ones face challenges caused by aging, especially if they are not receptive to help. However, you can only do so much convincing and pleading to change their minds or get them to explore new options. Do your best to accept the situation for what it is and know what you cannot change (and what you can).
  20. Treat your aging parents like the competent adults they are: Remember that your parents are adults and they deserve to be treated as such. Even if a parent has dementia, they are still legally deemed competent unless and until a Court finds them incompetent to make decisions. People in early and even moderate stages of dementia are still capable of making decisions for themselves, even though they may exercise poor judgment. During your conversations, focus on empowering them and giving them plenty of choices and input into every decision.

When Nursing Home Care Is Needed

Nursing homes in the Metro DC area cost $12,000-$15,000 a month, which can be catastrophic for most families. Do you have a loved one who is in a nursing home or nearing the need for nursing home care? Or are you simply looking to plan ahead in the event nursing home care is needed in the future? Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting your assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into a nursing home, while also helping ensure that you or your loved one get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. 

If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past three to five years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! 

Please contact us whenever you are ready to ensure that you have the appropriate level of planning: 

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888             
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435             
Rockville, MD Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041             
Annapolis, MD Elder Law Attorney: 410-216-0703   

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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