How to Discuss Senior Care Needs with a Reluctant Parent

June 16, 2014

A family caregiver struggles to administer medicine to senior mother.

Photo courtesy of New York Times

It can be agonizing for family members to watch a senior loved one struggle with daily activities they used to find easy, and the situation becomes even more challenging when a parent is unwilling to discuss his or her difficulties.

They may fear losing their independence, they may feel they are becoming a burden, or they may simply be unwilling to acknowledge their need for help. They may even suffer from mental health issues or cognitive impairment, hampering their ability to understand or cope with late-life transitions.

One of the most stressful subjects to broach is, of course, the idea of moving into senior living. However, there are a number of other potentially difficult topics that an adult child or other family member might face with respect to caring for a parent, including:

  • downsizing to a smaller home
  • installing a medical alert system
  • using a medical alert watch and automatic fall detection device
  • treatment for mental or physical illness
  • additional help with housekeeping or personal care
  • modifying a home to accommodate aging or disability
  • seeking advice on financial matters
  • discussing end-of-life planning and important documents

Fortunately, a bit of understanding and preparation can go a long way toward easing the anxiety of a tough senior care discussion.
Reasons Why a Senior Parent May Avoid Difficult Conversations
A good first step to figuring out how to bring up a difficult subject is understanding the reasons why an aging loved one may want to avoid conversation.

“If your loved one is in need of care, he or she is likely dealing with loss — physical loss, mental loss, the loss of independence,” says the Mayo Clinic. “Accepting care might mean relinquishing privacy and adjusting to new routines. As a result, your loved one might feel frightened and vulnerable, angry that he or she needs help or guilty about the idea of becoming a burden to family and friends.”

Sadly, one of the most wrenching reasons why it can be difficult to talk to a senior parent is when mental illness or cognitive loss is an issue. A 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found that between 14 and 20 percent of American seniors suffer from one or more mental health issues, such as depression or substance abuse.

Furthermore, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The prevalence of these and other health problems in the aging population makes it more urgent than ever for family members to take charge of their loved ones’ well-being. It’s important to start by having an honest and patient conversation.
Strategies for Communicating with a Reluctant Parent


There are several strategies for approaching conversations with a parent who doesn’t want to discuss his or her care needs, but the number one suggestion from most authorities is preparation. suggests, “Prepare to be open, honest and not argumentative when discussing these topics with your elderly loved ones and have some knowledge about the topics you’re talking about.” Here are a few more ideas to keep in mind when discussing tough topics:

  • Consider the personality of your parent, and whether they’ll respond best to a direct approach or a less threatening strategy. Pick a time when you are both relaxed.
  • Acknowledge your loved one’s feelings of loss and grief, says, if you are speaking to them about senior living and the idea of a big move.
  • Don’t criticize or dismiss their fears, if they worry about neglect or loss of independence. Instead, work through concerns together. Explain that getting more help may in fact prolong their independence.
  • Enlist family, friends, or care providers if you think they can help. advises, “Don’t take it on alone. Brainstorm with other family and friends and talk with your loved one’s medical team. Sometimes a senior will listen more to a doctor, care manager, or other impartial party.”

Remember most of all that when it comes to the issue of care for your aging loved ones, you aren’t alone. There are plenty of resources out there to help you coordinate with caregivers, organize home care, conduct aging in place home modifications, and discuss senior living concerns.

Take care of yourself, and you’ll find it easier to care for your loved ones, too.

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