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When Older Parents Resist Help or Advice, Use These Tips to Cope
Navigating Aging

When Older Parents Resist Help or Advice, Use These Tips to Cope

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It was a regrettable mistake. But Kim Sylvester thought she was doing the right thing at the time.

Her 80-year-old mother, Harriet Burkel, had fallen at her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, fractured her pelvis, and gone to a rehabilitation center to recover. It was only days after the death of Burkel鈥檚 82-year-old husband, who鈥檇 moved into a memory care facility three years before.

With growing distress, Sylvester had watched her mother, who had emphysema and peripheral artery disease, become increasingly frail and isolated. 鈥淚 would say, 鈥楥an I help you?鈥 And my mother would say, 鈥楴o, I can do this myself. I don鈥檛 need anything. I can handle it,鈥欌 Sylvester told me.

Now, Sylvester had a chance to get some more information. She let herself into her mother鈥檚 home and went through all the paperwork she could find. 鈥淚t was a shambles 鈥 completely disorganized, bills everywhere,鈥 she said. 鈥淚t was clear things were out of control.鈥

Sylvester sprang into action, terminating her mother鈥檚 orders for anti-aging supplements, canceling two car warranty insurance policies (Burkel wasn鈥檛 driving at that point), ending a yearlong contract for knee injections with a chiropractor, and throwing out donation requests from dozens of organizations. When her mother found out, she was furious.

A photo of Harriet Burkel.
Despite her ailing health, Kim Sylvester鈥檚 mother, Harriet Burkel, was resistant to help. Without her mother knowing, Sylvester did some paperwork on her behalf. When Burkel found out, she was furious, and Sylvester says she felt she had become someone her mother couldn鈥檛 trust.(Kim Sylvester)

鈥淚 was trying to save my mother, but I became someone she couldn鈥檛 trust 鈥 the enemy. I really messed up,鈥 Sylvester said.

Dealing with an older parent who stubbornly resists offers of help isn鈥檛 easy. But the solution isn鈥檛 to make an older person feel like you鈥檙e steamrolling them and taking over their affairs. What鈥檚 needed instead are respect, empathy, and appreciation of the older person鈥檚 autonomy.

鈥淚t鈥檚 hard when you see an older person making poor choices and decisions. But if that person is cognitively intact, you can鈥檛 force them to do what you think they should do,鈥 said Anne Sansevero, president of the board of directors of the Aging Life Care Association, a national organization of care managers who work with older adults and their families. 鈥淭hey have a right to make choices for themselves.鈥

That doesn鈥檛 mean adult children concerned about an older parent should step aside or agree to everything the parent proposes. Rather, a different set of skills is needed.

Cheryl Woodson, an author and retired physician based in the Chicago area, learned this firsthand when her mother 鈥 whom Woodson described as a 鈥渧ery powerful鈥 woman 鈥 developed mild cognitive impairment. She started getting lost while driving and would buy things she didn鈥檛 need then give them away.

Chastising her mother wasn鈥檛 going to work. 鈥淵ou can鈥檛 push people like my mother or try to take control,鈥 Woodson told me. 鈥淵ou don鈥檛 tell them, 鈥楴o, you鈥檙e wrong,鈥 because they changed your diapers and they鈥檒l always be your mom.鈥

Instead, Woodson learned to appeal to her mother鈥檚 pride in being the family matriarch. 鈥淲henever she got upset, I鈥檇 ask her, 鈥楳other, what year was it that Aunt Terri got married?鈥 or 鈥楳other, I don鈥檛 remember how to make macaroni. How much cheese do you put in?鈥 And she鈥檇 forget what she was worked up about and we鈥檇 just go on from there.鈥

Woodson, author of 鈥: A Daughter鈥檚 Experience, a Doctor鈥檚 Advice,鈥 also learned to apply a 鈥渄oes it really matter to safety or health?鈥 standard to her mother鈥檚 behavior. It helped Woodson let go of her sometimes unreasonable expectations. One example she related: 鈥淢y mother used to shake hot sauce on pancakes. It would drive my brother nuts, but she was eating, and that was good.鈥

鈥淵ou don鈥檛 want to rub their nose into their incapacity,鈥 said Woodson, whose mother died in 2003.

Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, sounded similar themes in describing a psychiatrist in his late 70s who didn鈥檛 like to bend to authority. After his wife died, the older man stopped shaving and changing his clothes regularly. Though he had diabetes, he didn鈥檛 want to see a physician and instead prescribed medicine for himself. Even after several strokes compromised his vision, he insisted on driving.

Jacobs鈥 take: 鈥淵ou don鈥檛 want to go toe-to-toe with someone like this, because you will lose. They鈥檙e almost daring you to tell them what to do so they can show you they won鈥檛 follow your advice.鈥

What鈥檚 the alternative? 鈥淚 would employ empathy and appeal to this person鈥檚 pride as a basis for handling adversity or change,鈥 Jacobs said. 鈥淚 might say something along the lines of, 鈥業 know you don鈥檛 want to stop driving and that this will be very painful for you. But I know you have faced difficult, painful changes before and you鈥檒l find your way through this.鈥欌

鈥淵ou鈥檙e appealing to their ideal self rather than treating them as if they don鈥檛 have the right to make their own decisions anymore,鈥 he explained. In the older psychiatrist鈥檚 case, conflict with his four children was constant, but he eventually stopped driving.

Another strategy that can be useful: 鈥淪how up, but do it in a way that鈥檚 face-saving,鈥 Jacobs said. Instead of asking your father if you can check in on him, 鈥淕o to his house and say, 鈥楾he kids really wanted to see you. I hope you don鈥檛 mind.鈥 Or, 鈥榃e made too much food. I hope you don鈥檛 mind my bringing it over.鈥 Or, 鈥業 wanted to stop by. I hope you can give me some advice about this issue that鈥檚 on my mind.鈥欌

This psychiatrist didn鈥檛 have any cognitive problems, though he wasn鈥檛 as sharp as he used to be. But encroaching cognitive impairment often colors difficult family interactions.

If you think this might be a factor with your parent, instead of trying to persuade them to accept more help at home, try to get them medically evaluated, said Leslie Kernisan, author of 鈥: A Geriatrician鈥檚 Step-by-Step Guide to Memory Loss, Resistance, Safety Worries, and More.鈥

鈥淒ecreased brain function can affect an older adult鈥檚 insight and judgment and ability to understand the risks of certain actions or situations, while also making people suspicious and defensive,鈥 she noted.

This doesn鈥檛 mean you should give up on talking to an older parent with mild cognitive impairment or early-stage dementia, however. 鈥淵ou always want to give the older adult a chance to weigh in and talk about what鈥檚 important to them and their feelings and concerns,鈥 Kernisan said.

鈥淚f you frame your suggestions as a way of helping your parent achieve a goal they鈥檝e said was important, they tend to be much more receptive to it,鈥 she said.

A turning point for Sylvester and her mother came when the older woman, who developed dementia, went to a nursing home at the end of 2021. Her mother, who at first didn鈥檛 realize the move was permanent, was furious, and Sylvester waited two months before visiting. When she finally walked into Burkel鈥檚 room, bearing a Valentine鈥檚 Day wreath, Burkel hugged her and said, 鈥淚鈥檓 so glad to see you,鈥 before pulling away. 鈥淏ut I鈥檓 so mad at my other daughter.鈥

Sylvester, who doesn鈥檛 have a sister, responded, 鈥淚 know, Mom. She meant well, but she didn鈥檛 handle things properly.鈥 She learned the value of what she calls a 鈥溾 from Kernisan, who ran a family caregiver group Sylvester attended between 2019 and 2021.

After that visit, Sylvester saw her mother often, and all was well between the two women up until Burkel鈥檚 death. 鈥淚f something was upsetting my mother, I would just go, 鈥業nteresting,鈥 or, 鈥楾hat鈥檚 a thought.鈥 You have to give yourself time to remember this is not the person you used to know and create the person you need to be for your parent, who鈥檚 changed so much.鈥

We鈥檙e eager to hear from readers about questions you鈥檇 like answered, problems you鈥檝e been having with your care, and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit聽聽to submit your requests or tips.