If you’re struggling with how to deal with a “stubborn” aging parent, you’re probably feeling pretty frustrated. These 18 tips and ideas may help.
Know that you’re not alone in your feelings.
First, know that you’re not alone. If you feel that your parent is being stubborn, you’re in good company. In a recent study, a whopping 77% of middle-aged adult children reported that their aging parents were acting in stubborn ways at least some of the time. Perhaps more surprising, a full two-thirds of their parents (66%) agreed.
Seek to understand your parent’s point of view.
Parents may have a variety of reasons for why their behavior appears to be stubborn. Some of these include:
- Trying to remain autonomous and feeling they are losing their independence.
- Fearing they may be placed in a nursing home.
- Having untreated depression—often after the death of a spouse.
- Feeling like their body is betraying them with balance, strength, incontinence and other health issues.
- Fearing their own mortality.
- Feeling left out or isolated.
- Lacking a feeling of purpose.
- Feeling frustrated and scared.
- Having regrets.
- Feeling an invasion of privacy in their lives.
- Having dementia and not being fully in control of their mental faculties.
Recognizing what it must be like to live in their world can go a long way toward stirring feelings of compassion in you and enhancing your relationship with your parent.
Try to look at “stubbornness” differently.
The word stubborn has negative connotations of being inflexible, disagreeable, resistant, and immovable. Instead, try to see your parents as persistent, tenacious, or determined.
At least one study found that people who lived to be 90 to 100 tended to be stubborn, resilient, adaptable, and positive. Your tenacious parent may live a longer, happier life.
Additionally, it’s important to balance your parent’s safety with their psychological well-being. In other words, don’t disregard the importance of their independence and emotional well-being when addressing safety concerns.
Understand that you may be able to find a common goal.
If you and your parent are butting heads, it may be that you have mismatched goals. Often parents want to accomplish a task they were previously able to do without risk. By contrast, adult children are often concerned about safety issues.
For example, your 85-year-old mom may climb on a ladder to water the hanging flowers outside. You worry about her safety and the risk of falling. Perhaps you can agree to put a spray attachment on the end of the hose so she can water the plants safely. Both of you can meet your goals.
Similarly, your dad may be climbing a step ladder or standing on a chair to change a lightbulb. You want him to wait until you can help. He doesn’t want to sit in the dark until your next visit. Is there alternative lighting that can be installed? Is there a nearby neighbor that would be happy to pop in and change a bulb? Can your dad demonstrate to you that he is safe and steady on the ladder?
Your sibling may think it’s time for your elderly mom to hang up her keys permanently. She wants to be able to grocery shop at a moment’s notice or attend church on Sunday. Can you ride with your mom to assess her driving for yourself? If you find that the driving doesn’t go well, perhaps a slightly younger friend could pick her up for church. If she can operate a smart phone, a shared ride account might work for her.
Don’t argue or nag.
Don’t allow the situation to escalate. Getting frustrated, angry, or arguing with your parent tends to be detrimental to both the relationship and the resolution of the conflict. Behaviors such as arguing and rewording or repeating your suggestion are rarely effective. What’s worse, they may negatively impact your relationship.
If you’re not able to make progress, consider a different approach. No one likes to be nagged.
Instead, ask questions. Then really listen to your parents’ answers and approach the issue with reason. A calm, rational discussion is usually most effective—although it’s not always easy.
Choose your battles.
Not every disagreement is worth a tussle. Consider the risks and benefits of the discussion. How important is it?
At the same time, “giving up” isn’t necessarily the solution. Research has shown that adult children who just “let go” or “wait,” may end up internalizing their feelings of anger and frustration, which can both negatively impact the relationship and lead to depression in the adult child.
At times, you may be able to accept the situation. It is what it is. Other times, you may need to try another approach.
Call in reinforcements.
It’s ok to ask for help. If your sibling has a better relationship with your parent, perhaps he/she would have better luck discussing a difficult issue with your parent.
Similarly, a healthcare professional, such as a Homethrive Care Guide, can help advise you or guide discussions with you and your parent. Some parents are more likely to listen to an authority figure than they will to family members.
Research shows that conflict increases when a parent and adult children have a history of unresolved issues or when an aging parent has a disability. In these cases, a third-party may be able to help the situation.
Don’t try to parent your parent.
It’s important to treat your parents like the adults they are. You can’t control another adult, nor should you try. Instead, ask your parents about their preferences. Treat them with respect, and never belittle them.
Suggest a trial period.
Your parents may agree to an experiment rather than a long-term change. Perhaps they’re amenable to trying something new rather than committing to it.
Vent to a friend, Care Guide, or therapist.
It’s normal to get frustrated and angry with the ones we love. What’s more, it’s ok to vent to a friend or healthcare professional. Friends who have been through similar experiences with their own parents may be able to provide a listening ear. Specialists in geriatric care, such as Care Guides, can serve not only as sounding boards, but also as valuable resources of information, advice, and assistance.
Take time for you.
You have the right to take care of yourself, and you have a right to your own life. Caregiver stress is real. If you’re feeling sad, overwhelmed, or drained, read these 20 proven ways to reduce stress of caring for an aging parent.
Give yourself some grace.
Even if your parent is unwilling or unable to show appreciation for the care, support, or help that you’re providing, commend yourself for a job well done.
No one is perfect. Try not to be too hard on yourself if you find yourself feeling irritated or angry with your aging parent. These emotions are understandable. So is the guilt you may feel afterwards.
Especially if your parent has dementia, he/she may be incapable of thanking you. He/she may even be rude or have angry outbursts. Recognize how difficult the situation is and appreciate yourself for your efforts. Don’t blame yourself for your parent’s reluctance to cooperate or agree with you.
Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.
No one has all the answers. Your parents’ problem-solving skills may not be as sharp as they once were, and they could very well be stubborn. On the other hand, maybe you have it wrong. If you’re not sure, discuss your everyday concerns with a trusted friend or family member. For major decisions, you may want to seek expert advice from someone who specializes in geriatric care management.
Some communication approaches work better than others—especially if you need to have a difficult conversation. Here are a few suggestions to consider:
- Choose a quiet environment where your parent can communicate with you, free from distractions and background noise.
- Start off casually. Try not to simply launch into a difficult topic at the onset of a conversation.
- Keep communication simple and shorten your sentences. Don’t veer from one topic to another, which your parent may find confusing. Stay focused.
- Offer specific choices. “Would you rather watch the news or Wheel of Fortune?” is better than, “What do you want to watch on TV?” Allow your parent to make decisions for themselves.
- Ask questions. Don’t assume that you know the answers.
- Allow the older person plenty of time to respond. They may process information more slowly.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Use “I” statements and facts rather than judgments. For example, you might say, “I noticed that you stumbled on the stairs yesterday” vs “It’s not safe for you to walk upstairs to use the bathroom.”
- Take baby steps, if possible. For example, it’s easier to agree to driving only during the daytime first, then driving only within a two-mile radius, then stopping driving altogether—rather than going from total freedom to selling the car.
- Address money. Your parents may be resistant because they feel they can’t afford what they need. Be ready to discuss how to pay for lifestyle enhancements or accommodations.
Know when to be concerned.
Many issues can be resolved through effective communication. However, other situations may warrant making tough decisions even though a parent disagrees.
For example, if your parent has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, they may begin to wander. This is not a safe situation—especially if you live in a climate with weather extremes. No adult can watch someone 24/7. You may need to make other arrangements—regardless of your parent’s preference.
Likewise, if your parent is refusing to bathe or shower for weeks at a time, their skin can break down. The solution may be to install grab bars or a shower seat to enhance safety, or to bring in help.
Medication management may be another area that requires attention to prevent toxicity or under-dosing. Does your parent have to remember to take pills four times a day? Perhaps a change of medication would only require twice daily dosing to achieve the same health effects.
Consider technology solutions.
You may think that technology is not an option for your parents. You might be surprised how useful a smart home device, such as a Google Nest or an inexpensive Amazon Echo Dot, can be in managing reminders to take medications, finding lost items, or remembering important dates.
A tablet with apps can help seniors with entertainment, communication, and learning.
Facebook or Instagram can allow your aging parent to view pictures of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren without having to post updates themselves. This can help with feelings of isolation.
Likewise, Skype or FaceTime can be used to see and interact with family members that live far away or whose busy lives make it difficult for them to connect. These audiovisual interactions are more personal than simply talking on the phone.
Solitaire and word games online can provide hours of entertainment and may help to keep your aging parents' mind sharp.
Equalize the balance of power.
If possible, give your parents the ability to help you or someone else. For example, share details of struggles in your life. Helping you or someone else can help provide meaning in their lives. Research shows that older adults who provide support for others have increased well-being and better health. By contrast, those who receive help tend to have a more negative mood.
Finally, if you can gain your parent’s cooperation for a walk, swim, or chair yoga, both of you may feel better. Research shows that physical activity in old age can help increase mood, enhance social function, improve health, and prevent falls.
Each situation is unique. Reduce your stress levels and help your parents thrive happily at home—wherever that is—by considering some of the tips above to deal with your stubborn aging parent.
For safety issues or significant family conflict, you may want to seek out an expert. A Homethrive Care Guide or other social worker specializing in elder care can help you navigate the situation and take some of the burden off your shoulders.