Looking after your aging parent or relative can be challenging at the best of times. When you are dealing with someone who is stubborn, the process gets that much harder.
While there are no simple solutions for dealing with parents who don’t want to accept your help or who are set in their ways, there are some approaches you can take. This post details what you can do, starting with understanding them more and learning where the stubbornness comes from.
What Makes Them Stubborn
For most elderly, the process of aging is frustrating and scary.
As time goes on, the individual may be losing more and more of their independence and every change is an indication of time progressing. For most, it’s a time to reflect on regrets, dreams deferred, and how to lead a purposeful life.
They also tend to feel betrayed by their own bodies as they are frequently unable to do everything that they think they should be able to. This includes issues of incontinence, sleep problems and an increased risk of falls.
To make matters worse, our society tends to be prejudiced against the elderly, often treating them with disrespect. This means that as people age they can frequently feel belittled and have low self-esteem.
Aging is a stressful situation – and a difficult one.
People vary in the way that they respond to these challenges and many times this results in stubborn aging parents.
In some cases, older adults will lash out at the people caring for them – such as being angry or insulting to the caregiver.
Other times, older adults will try to maintain as much control as possible over their lives – such as trying to drive when it is no longer safe.
This desire to have control can make older adults very stubborn, particularly if the person caring for them is recommending something that they do not agree with.
Tension and Bad Blood
The challenges of aging can also place a major strain on relationships, particularly the relationship between the caregiver and the senior. In turn, this can make things harder and may lead to the elderly family member being more stubborn.
In particular, any unresolved issues or pre-existing tensions between the caregiver and the senior will tend to come to the forefront in a caregiving situation. This is particularly common in the parent-child situation, where the child is the caregiver for the parent. For example:
- If the child felt that their mother was too strict or unfair in some way during their childhood, this perspective could easily turn into resentment.
- If the parent felt disappointed in their child’s choices or felt abandoned in some way, a similar situation can occur.
In many cases, something can start out as a small issue, barely worth talking about, but it can grow over time and have significant impacts on the relationship between parent and child.
The Challenge of Choice
Additionally, caregivers often do not have a choice about taking on the caregiving role or they may have taken this on without being fully aware of the tough road ahead.
In many cases, the child who ends up caring for the parent is the one who is closest in proximity, is a woman, or is the one with the closest relationship to the parent. This can mean that there are other relatives that play little to no role in caregiving and certainly do not take on the stress or burden involved.
This can easily create a situation where the caregiver resents their role and this resentment can be taken out on their relative.
Parents Who Are Already Stubborn
All of these issues are even more significant for parents who are stubborn to start off with.
The stubbornness can make the child feel like they are fighting an uphill battle and can create even more tension between the parent and child.
As daunting as the task may seem, the first step to resolving these issues is to honestly talk about them. In many cases, the parent may be unaware of the challenges that are involved in caregiving or be clueless about their child’s feelings.
Simply talking about the issues and emotions at hand can often help to reveal surprising solutions.
For example, a friend of mine and her husband were caregivers for her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law was becoming increasingly frustrated at how infrequently the wife cleaned the house and felt that she was expected to do everything.
Yet, this wasn’t the case at all.
Instead, the wife simply scheduled differently than the mother-in-law anticipated. Once the mother-in-law realized she wasn’t expected to do housework, the tension lifted. Ironically, the mother-in-law kept doing the same amount of housework regardless.
However, in some cases, talking about the issues do not help to resolve them, especially in cases of very stubborn aging parents. This is even truer in cases where the senior has a bad memory or has trouble grasping onto concepts at times.
As such, a second approach is for the caregiver to actively work on burying the hatchet between them and their parent, and to simply forgive them.
Working on old resentments and unresolved anger can be challenging, but may be an important step for forgiveness and a healthy caregiving situation.
Even if you don’t think that you resent or have any conflict with the person you are caring for – it is worth taking the time to reflect on what you think and how you feel. Often tension can be subtle and small issues can certainly build into large mountains over time.
In many cases, what started as a small issue can end up being a constant battle between caregiver and senior, and can mean that the senior becomes much more stubborn as a result.
In many cases, stubbornness can arise when the older adult fails to fully capture the situation at hand.
One example of this is with medication management.
Older adults can often be on a large number of medications to treat a range of conditions and to treat the side effects of other medications. On average, people above 65 years of age take 5-6 different medications, and some take many more.
The number can seem overwhelming and the person may feel tempted to skip some of the medications, especially if they are associated with negative side effects.
For example, I had a client who was a caregiver for her mother. The mother had around 15 different pills to take per day, which she found difficult to keep track of. The caregiver filled pillboxes each week and there seemed to be no issues with the mother taking them.
However, the caregiver eventually found out that the mother was throwing out one particular pill because it made her feel queasy.
It never occurred to the mother that not taking the pill could have negative consequences, or that it was possible to talk to the doctor about it and find a similar pill with fewer side effects.
There are many other times where not understanding the situation can be a major issue.
For example, some parents don’t understand why bills are so high (because they never used to be), why their insurance doesn’t cover everything that they want and need or how cooking in a bathrobe is generally not a good idea (because of the fire risk).
If you’re aware that understanding is a problem, you can look for other ways to explain.
Another concern is memory.
Many older adults have some trouble with their memory and this can strongly influence how easy or difficult they are to care for. While some stubborn aging parents don’t experience significant memory issues, many do.
Memory issues can mean that the person forgets to do things, like taking their medication or has trouble navigating their way back home.
Additionally, memory issues can mean that a person incorrectly remembers information or events.
For example, an older adult might get up early to wait for a scheduled ride at nine in the morning, when the ride isn’t actually supposed to turn up until 1 pm that day. It can be a source of frustration for all parties.
The issue can get worse with a stubborn relative. When people who are stubborn about aging lose their memory, they often don’t want to admit it – not to you and certainly not to themselves.
Sometimes this means that they will subconsciously fill in details of the event that they have forgotten, which can result in an incorrect memory of something that happened.
This can be frustrating for any caregiver to deal with, especially when they have little way of knowing how much of a memory is true. Many caregivers have reported that they feel like a prosecutor or a detective when trying to find out where an elderly parent has been or what they have been doing, especially in cases where what the parent claims doesn’t make sense.
This issue can often make older adults more stubborn because they become convinced in what they think they remember, even if that is not accurate and will then try to act on that information.
Once again, if you can recognize that this is occurring, you can look for other ways to tackle problems, ones that take memory challenges into account.
For example, you might keep a better record of events, possibly even recording critical conversations.
Memory Issues versus Dementia
Most older adults experience some issue with their memory as they age, but this issue tends to be more significant for some adults than others.
As a caregiver, you do need to pay attention to memory loss as it can be an early sign of dementia. You also need to take the time to have your relative screened for dementia if they are showing warning signs.
An estimated one in eight older Americans has Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. This makes being aware of the risks and signs particularly important.
It is also important to note that simple memory loss from aging will vary considerably from one person to the next. For example, a person who was easily confused and forgetful as an adult would tend to be even more so as a senior, while an adult who was sharp might not have too many issues in their elderly years.
As a caregiver, you tend to be trying to pull off an almost impossible balancing act.
On the one hand, the person you are caring for is an adult and should be capable of making their own decisions and they have the right to do so.
On the other hand, that same person may not always be aware what the best decision is for them and if they make decisions themselves they have the potential to significantly put their health at risk
Empowerment through Compromise
In some cases, you can convince your stubborn aging parents to cooperate through crafty coercion, but better yet, by finding a compromise that incorporates some of what they need.
For example, if there was a medication that your parent is downright refusing to take, then it may be worthwhile to talk to the doctor and find an alternative medication or modify the dose.
Likewise, if you have a parent who doesn’t like going out because of the hassle, you may be able to convince them by turning it into a day for the two of you.
For example, my friend’s mother-in-law doesn’t like the food in the house and wants to shop herself, but never quite gets there. So, my friend has started taking her out to breakfast and then to the grocery store once a month. This is often enough to keep the mother-in-law happy and normally ends up being a nice day for both of them.
Compromise can be very important because it can empower the aging parent and make them feel like they have retained some control over their lives.
This is true even if the compromises are small.
There are also other ways that you can try to empower your aging parents.
You can help them live independently for much longer. For example, there are many novel gadgets and apps that can help them take medication in a timely fashion, that once programmed, require little outside intervention. In addition, you can ensure that your parents access the public transportation resources at low cost or for free, which they can use on their own.
Ultimately, this is in the best interest of the person being cared for and most elderly people don’t want to live in an assisted living facility, which is the alternative.
Communication is the key component of any relationship and this is especially true when it comes to a caregiving relationship.
This means that you need to focus on creating an open communication environment, where the older adult can talk to you about anything without having to be concerned. A dictatorship is bound to fail in any relationship.
This also means taking the time to talk to your aging parent about changes to their regimen.
In some cases, the first step may be to consider what approaches to communication work best.
For example, some older adults have difficulty understanding complex ideas, so it may be necessary to break complex concepts down so they can be understood more easily.
Some key approaches to successfully communicating with older adults include the following:
- Reduce distraction: Background noise can make it much harder for everyone to focus
- Start off with familiar and casual topics: This makes the conversation less stressful and means the senior is less likely to be resistant.
- Stick to a topic: Jumping across multiple topics can be confusing.
- Give them specific options: For example, asking ‘do you want to chicken or pork for dinner?’ is easier for them than asking ‘what do you want for dinner?’ The same applies to more complex decisions.
- Allow them time to think and respond: Don’t rush them. It may take them longer to process information and rushing them will just result in stress.
- Be an active listener: Look for clues in what they mean in what they say and how they act. Encourage them to tell you more when they are talking about things that matter to them.
- Use short sentences and questions: This can help with understanding.
- Avoid being judgmental: Older adults often struggle. Being (or appearing) judgmental can make things harder and may result in them being resistant.
- Ask, don’t assume: Giving seniors decisions can help them feel in control of their lives and helps make sure you are both on the same page.
- Use ‘I’ language: Saying things like ‘you have to exercise’ can be counterproductive as it feels bossy and like the older adult is being ordered around. This is something that most people quickly become resistant to. Instead, phrase things like ‘Today I’ll help you with your exercises’. This approach has roughly the same message but is less abrasive.
Other older adults may struggle with memory issues.
If this is the case, then you may have to explain the same thing multiple times. While this can be frustrating, remember that it is just as frustrating for your relative.
Stand Firm with Tough Love
You cannot please everyone, and this is especially true when it comes to caregiving.
In many cases, older adults are resistant to things that are important for their health and wellbeing – which can be especially challenging for you as a caregiver.
If you let your elderly parent have everything their own way then there is a very real chance that they will get hurt, whether it is from adverse effects of skipping a medication, falling because they refused to use the walking cane, or going into diabetic shock because they insisted on an extra helping of birthday cake.
In fact, if you are even partially responsible for an older adult, you may end up being charged with neglect if you do not help them.
This means that sometimes you have to make hard decisions and make sure that the person gets the help they need, even if they don’t want it.
The agency involved in this issue is Adult Protective Services (APS). In most cases, APS serves individuals considered as ‘vulnerable’, which includes people with a range of disabilities as the result of aging.
Abuse is far more than just physical abuse. APS defines a range of different types of abuse, including physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse, as well as neglect.
In general, failing to meet the needs of the person you are caring for can be considered neglect. This includes the following categories:
- Physical neglect: Not meeting the person’s physical needs, like not dispensing medications or not providing enough food
- Emotional neglect: This includes, causing emotional pain, ignoring emotional needs and isolating older adults
- Abandonment: Deserting the individual without arranging for care during absence
- Financial neglect: Not providing adequate support for financial obligations
To avoid any forms of abuse, you may have to resort to telling them what to do and insisting on things a certain way, rather than making decisions with them.
For example, if your parent can no longer drive safely but still insists on doing so, you may have to go as far as taking the keys or even selling the car. However, this would be a last resort and you would first talk to them about the issue multiple times and try to find a solution that works for everyone.
In most cases, you have to stick to your guns, regardless of how the parent reacts.
As you can imagine, most elderly parents don’t take kindly to this approach, especially not the stubborn ones.
However, their anger will subside, especially if you reassure them that you are trying to help them and that you do love and respect them. It might not be the easiest path to take, but sometimes it is the only option.
It may even be necessary to get outside intervention if your aging parent is continuing to be stubborn about something that is important to their health.
Kapok offers caregiver coaching that can help with many of these challenges, and geriatric care management can be a key process in developing a plan of care that meets the needs of your family member.
Additionally, there are many doctor and nursing services that will visit the home and having them come regularly can be important for making sure your parent stays healthy.
Balance Your Own Needs
Caregiving is a demanding task, both physically and emotionally.
Often the challenges of caregiving mean that people give up their own needs.
It also often leads to spending your own money, sacrificing work and sacrificing free time to help family members.
Some research suggests that caregivers may reduce their life expectancy from four to eight years as the result of chronic stress (1,2). According to the National Alliance for Caregiving around half of caregivers who help elderly are providing an average of $200 financial assistance every month (3).
In many cases, providing this financial assistance involved caregivers using their own savings, cutting back on home maintenance or cutting back on spending for their own dental care or health care.
Estimates show that 37% of caregivers for people aged 50 or above that have had to reduce work hours or quit their job (4).
You have likely made substantial sacrifices to accommodate and care for your aging parent, and may be at your wits end.
To care for your parent effectively you have to take the time to care for yourself as well.
This means that you have to find ways to meet your own needs as well as the needs of your family.
There are actually many resources out there that can help ease the challenges of caregiving while helping the person you care for do more things independently.
For example, assistive technology can help seniors manage their medication better or help them to get out of the house more often. Even something as simple as a tool for reaching can help to reduce the amount of work a caregiver has to do.
Being organized can also be a key factor in caregivers getting more time for themselves, yet it is overlooked far too often.
There are also community resources that can help to lighten the load of caregiving. For example, many senior centers offer transportation to and from their location for seniors and will give them a place to go and be social for a time, while you get a much-needed break.
Meeting your own needs also includes actually taking a day off every once in a while and making sure you don’t get too bogged down with the stresses of caregiving.
Another important approach is to develop a support system, which can involve friends, neighbors, and other family members. While not everyone will want to help, you will often find some people that are willing to lend a helping hand or just be a shoulder to lean on.
Support groups are another key approach and talking to people in similar situations can offer insights and new ideas. Often, just knowing you are not in it alone can make the challenges of caregiving less daunting.
Finally, it is important to focus on having hobbies of your own, things that make you excited and engaged. Having something like a hobby that is just for you can be an important way of staying sane.
It’s easy to feel guilty about taking time for yourself as a caregiver, but you shouldn’t.
Ultimately, the best way to provide care for someone else is to first care for yourself.
Growing and Learning
Being a caregiver is challenging and sometimes the person you are caring for just makes everything so much more difficult.
As a parent ages into their later years, the roles do begin to reverse and children find themselves stepping into the role of being a parent for their parent.
This transition is always going to be challenging, especially as the aging parent is experiencing many challenges with their own body at the same time.
As time goes on, the challenges will decrease and the parent and caregiver do start to develop a rhythm and learn what works best.
While it might not seem like things will ever get better, they really will.
The biggest piece of advice that I can give you is to approach the situation with love and understanding, even if this seems hard to pull off some days.
If you have any experiences dealing with stubborn parents, please leave a note in the comments below. We’d love to hear what your challenges were and how you managed to resolve them (if you did).