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When Your Aging Parent Refuses Help: Overcoming the ‘Help Hurdle’

Many sons and daughters are having similar conversations with their aging parent(s). It goes something like this:

Son/Daughter: I am going to arrange for someone to come in and do some house cleaning and outside work.

Parent: I don’t need any help. I can do it myself.

Son/Daughter: But it’s obvious you do need the help. Why are you being so stubborn? I am trying to help and you are fighting me all the way.

Parent: Well, how many times do I need to tell you, I am getting along fine? I don’t want any strangers in my home and I am not about to spend money on something or have you spend money on something that I can do on my own.

Son/Daughter: But it’s obvious you can’t do it yourself anymore. Look at this place. And your neighbour Tim has been mowing the lawn for weeks now, in case you didn’t notice. We need to work out some kind of payment to him or use a lawn mowing service.

Parent: He doesn’t have to mow it. I didn’t ask him. I can do it myself. He seems to do it before I have a chance to. I am very busy you know.

And on and on it goes.

We refer to this as the ‘help hurdle’ – when a parent declines offers of help because they “don’t need it.” How can you as a son or daughter make sense of this and what can you do about it? This is about more than someone’s stubbornness. Aging parents often have their own fears about aging and what this will mean for their health and independence. They can also worry about being a burden to their children.

What can you do when you want to help your parent but they don’t want it, or are already being helped and won’t acknowledge it? Bottom line: avoid a power struggle.

Lecture Mode Often Begets Resistance Mode

First of all, explore your motivation. How are you feeling about your parents’ aging and (eventual) decline in health? Ask yourself whether your motivation is to help them or manage your own fears? We sometimes slip into control mode as a way to manage our own fears and worries. When offers of help are fueled by fear, feelings of helplessness, or guilt, the offer of help can come across more like an order or a lecture. Most of us don’t do very well with being told what to do. Your heart very well may be in the right place and you “just” want to help make your parents’ life easier. It is possible to overcome this ‘help hurdle’.

Tips On How To Deal With The ‘Help Hurdle’

Start a conversation early. It can be a calmer and more productive conversation if it is a proactive one, and not one following a health crisis. Ask your parents open-ended questions about the future and what they imagine it will be like. Ask them what aging is like for them. What is hardest? Do they worry about the future? What do they worry about? What ideas do they have to reduce this worry? What would make their lives a little easier? Have you had deep, ‘heart to heart’ conversations with your parents in the past? If the answer is no, this conversation may be difficult to imagine. You may want to consider seeing a professional counsellor or coach to help you get started.

Consider where your parents are coming from. Of course, the best way to find this out is to ask. Most of us cherish our independence and most of us want to stay in our homes for as long as possible. Get curious about what is behind your parents’ reluctance to seek or agree to help. Listen, probe deeply, and do not move into problem solving or fix it mode. You first need to understand where your parents are coming from.

Own your fears and emotions and be honest about how you are feeling. You may even want to go further and ask if they would be willing to accept help so that you don’t worry as much! That is, ask them to do it for you, not for themselves. In this way, your parents don’t have to actually acknowledge the need for help. If you want their life to be easier, tell them that. Tell them you want to give back to them.

Offer several care options and resources. Ask what they think about these options and whether they have any other ideas. Think as broadly and creatively as you can about options. If your parents don’t want a stranger in the house, for example, you may be able to come up with a different solution. Perhaps you do the house cleaning once a week for your parents and hire a service for your own household. You may be able to strike a balance between what you want for them and what they want for themselves.

Be patient and don’t look for or expect an immediate “yes.” Leave options for your parents to consider. This is a ‘no pressure’ sales pitch!

Suggest your parents check it out or do a trial period. There may be more willingness if the plan isn’t seen as being carved in stone. Also, starting with a trial honours your parents’ right to make their own decisions.

Keep the conversation going. Consider this to be the beginning of an ongoing conversation. Trust can build over time with regular and ongoing discussions.

Share what you know about what works to help people stay in their homes as long as possible. Maybe it’s a cool app, a program you watched about smart homes, or a cleaning service that you know someone loves.

Choose your battles carefully. Ask yourself if this is a safety issue. Are your parents likely to leave the stove unattended? Forget to close or lock doors? Leave a space heater on? Take appropriate medications when they are scheduled to be taken and in the prescribed dosage?  Consider whether it is safe for them to live independently. If safety is not an issue, it may not be worth it to impose your standards. If the dust bunnies are bothering your parents, you can offer your help. If they are only annoying to you, it may not be worth the possibility of tension or a heated argument. Save your time and energy for safety issues and for when help is truly needed.

Accept that it is what it is, for now. As long as people are capable, decisions are theirs to make. And while it can be difficult to accept, capable people have the right to make so-called ‘bad’ decisions. If you see their decisions as ‘bad’, spend some more time with the first three tips!

Consider seeing a professional counsellor if your caregiving relationship with your parents feels mired in tension, conflict, and negativity, or if you feel stuck in negative emotions like guilt, helplessness, frustration, or anger.

Applying these tips can help you avoid power struggles with your parents. They will not guarantee a jump over the help hurdle, but they can make for a smoother trek down the track. The fact that you are reading this article shows your good intentions in helping out your aging parents.