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September “Senior Sense”: When Your Aging Parent Won’t Accept Help

POSTED BY
Liz O'Donnell on August 17, 2020 04:47 PM

I would have cleaned up in a poker game against my mother; she had “a tell.” A tell is a subtle sign that some card players exhibit when they try to cover up the value of their cards. And if someone picks up on the sign, it gives away the card player’s hand. My mother’s tell was a little catch in her voice that I would detect when something was wrong. If I asked her how she was doing, she would almost always say, “Fine.” But sometimes, I knew that was a lie. Sometimes, I picked up on her tell. I’d know there was a problem, but I didn’t know what it was. So I would wait. And a few days later, she would call – and at that point the problem had become drop-everything-important. Why, I would wonder, didn’t she just tell me she needed help when I asked?

It can be so frustrating for adult children when our parents don’t accept our help or take our advice. But is there anything we can do about it? The answer is it depends. It depends on what’s behind our parent’s refusal of assistance. Here are some common reasons our parents often turn down our offers of support, as well as some ways to respond.

They don’t want to lose control. Accepting help can feel like a loss of control – even when the helper only has good intentions. The person taking help can feel as if they will lose some semblance of control over their privacy, their schedule, and of course, their independence.

If you suspect fear of losing control is behind your parent refusing help, try to support them on their terms. It may be inconvenient in the short term to work around their schedule, but it could pay off in the long term – in the form of their receptivity to your assistance. Definitely try to keep your opinions to yourself, unless you think they are causing harm to themselves or others. For example, if your parent accepts help with grocery shopping, refrain from commenting on their food choices – unless they are blatantly risking their health. If your parent is on a special diet per doctor’s orders, choose your battles wisely. Is one baked good going to make a big difference? If not, don’t mention it.

They don’t want to feel vulnerable. Asking for, and accepting help, requires a level of vulnerability – a feeling that many people work hard to avoid for most of their life. As author and professor Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable.” Understand that your parent is probably already feeling vulnerable as they face age and illness. Needing help will just compound those feelings. So it may not be your help they are rejecting, it may be the reason that they need help that is causing their discomfort.

 If you think your parent is struggling with why they need help, give them time to grieve their independence and their younger selves. Maybe, they resent an illness that has taken away their ability to be self-sufficient. Maybe, they long for the days when they could take something down from the shelf when they wanted it, instead of when you stopped by. Maybe they don’t want to see the doctor about what ails them because they fear it will lead to needing even more assistance. If you give them space, they will become more receptive to your help when they are ready.

They don’t like the perceived role reversal. So often, eldercare is referred to as a role reversal, when parent becomes child and child becomes parent. But it isn’t. Your parent is an adult who has lived a full life, most likely survived many challenges, and who deserves their autonomy. Perhaps, they have spent the better part of their life worrying about and caring for you and they don’t know how to shift. Be aware of how you approach eldercare – your parent will pick up on your attitude toward them. Treat them as the adult they are and ask them to in turn see you as an adult-- the adult they raised.

 Ultimately, your parent has the right to refuse your help. Of course, if your parent has some kind of cognitive decline like dementia or another brain related illness, you may indeed have to insist on helping them. In that situation, work with their medical team to find the best approach to supporting them. But if your parent is of sound mind, you may need to honor their choice to turn down assistance. If that is the case, then know that you too have a choice in how you respond to their decision. But before you choose, consider where their resistance may be coming from and think about whether they just might need more time to accept the help, more control over how the help is delivered, or perhaps just a little more compassion about this stage of their life.

For caregiving support, information and resources contact a Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. We are master’s-level social workers specializing in adult and senior care. Call us today at (855) 781-1303 x3 or email questions to careplanning@care.com

Liz O'Donnell

Liz is the founder of Working Daughter, a thriving community for women balancing eldercare, career, and more. A former family caregiver, she is a recognized expert on working while caregiving and has written on the topic for The Atlantic, Forbes, TIME, WBUR and PBS’ Next Avenue. Her book, Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning A Living, will be published in August 2019.