Caregiving Blog: What to Do With Stubborn Elderly Parents

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What to do with stubborn elderly parents—especially when parents don’t see themselves as being stubborn? Some say being stubborn is a generational trait of elderly parents. Elderly parents have done the same things year after year using the same habits. Why change now?

If stubborn elderly parents realized the effect of this behavior upon their children, the question of what to do with stubborn elderly parents might not be such a dispute. By understanding the emotions of elderly parents and improving communication skills, relationships can improve.

My Way or the High Way

How many times have we heard our parents say, “my way or the high way,” or “as long as you live under this roof, you live under my rules.” These are two statements that made us, as children, feel powerless and defiant. Eventually, we did move out of our parents home to start our own lives.

For years, we lived independently and happily. Outside of the confines of the roof of our parent’s homes, we were able to make our own choices. All of a sudden, the role of being a caregiver and the responsibilities of caregiving show up. Like it or not, we are pulled back into regular involvement with our elderly parents. This was not in our life plan.

Family Relationships Are Challenging

Living apart from our parents was easy. Effortless. Phone calls and visits fit within our schedules and were in our control. The luxury of planning our schedule disappears when we become a caregiver. We become linked to the schedules of elderly parents and their needs.

Today we pick up medications. Take elderly parents to medical appointments. Grocery shop and manage  unexpected and unscheduled requests like, “I forgot I’m out of toilet paper, can you run to the store and drop it off on your way home?” You had other plans this evening that now are changed. Your only thought is I’m so tired of being a caregiver.

Caregiving is a new role with tasks and responsibilities that can consume the life of the caregiver.  At first, many individuals do not think of themselves as caregivers. Family members may be helping out here and there with small requests. Occasional help, nothing really scheduled.

Helping out transitions into the role of a caregiver with the diagnosis of chronic disease, the occurrence of a heart attack or a hip fracture. Elderly parents have health issues that require attention and need help with things he or she can no longer do. Being a caregiver is associated with emotional ups and downs. One day everything is good. The next day is stressful and overwhelming.

Why We Think We’re Always Right

Caregiving battles begin when differences of opinion exist. There are differences of opinion. Caregivers see that a loved one wants to help and makes a mental list. The doctor suggested exercise, losing weight, and giving up the cigarettes because a parent has heart and breathing concerns. Improving any one of these three could help a parent feel better. Any improvement might lessen the burden caregivers feel from all of the hours dedicated to being a caregiver.

Recommendations from physicians fall on deaf ears. There are circumstances when elderly parents refuse to change behaviors. All we hear is, “I’ve lived this long this way—why should I change now?” At a loss for words, caregivers are left pondering what to do with stubborn elderly parents and wondering why they are so stubborn.

A sense of ownership exists in thinking that we are always right. When the thought of change is presented, the trap door called our mind slams shut. Making any change might mean that the way we have been managing our behaviors and our lives all these years might be wrong. No one likes to be wrong.

Who Are We If We Lose Our Identity?

One of my clients was tied to the identity of being sick. She had been sick from childhood with one illness after another. Through her adult life, there was one new diagnosis after another. The sickness and illness brought a great deal of attention and empathy from others. Imagine one day that this client is cured of all of the illnesses. She is sick no more.

What happens then? Who is this person who now has no one to pay attention to her and no illness to focus on or blame for years of hardships? We can become tied to the identity that we create for ourselves.

Being tied to an identity and being faced with the thought of creating a new identity can be life-shattering. People who lose significant weight experience this change in identity. Who am I now if not that person? Why are people treating me differently when I’m the same person inside? Mental work tied with effort are required for us to change behaviors.

Realizing We’re Wrong

The idea of realizing that what we have been doing or the habits we are tied to can be shocking and disappointing. All these years, the same patterns existed. The same things were done year after year, time after time. Today we’ve learned that our habits and thought processes may be faulty. We realize change may be needed, but we have no idea how to think differently to effect the change.

The people we live with, work with, and spend time with think as we do. They frame our habits. We grow close and become like each other. Sometimes we even think like each other.

Some individuals go through an entire life and do not make any significant changes because they like stability. While stability may be good, parts of being stable may have negative effects when life changes, and we do not. This is part of the reason that elderly parents are perceived as stubborn. Their lives, because of heath issues are changing, and they may be fearful or do not know how to respond to the change.

Stubborn Elderly Parent Relationships

To effect change and the idea of what to do with stubborn parents, even the caregiver must think differently. Caregivers may also have to change they way they think and their habits to be more successful in working with elderly parents.

Looking at relationships habits can be helpful. Were relationships with elderly parents positive, or were they always difficult and why> What made situations better or worse?

By completing a self-review of a relationship with a parent, it may be possible to see where negative patterns were created. Maybe an elderly parent is a constant complainer. The child responds by shutting down and leaving the visit or ending the phone call to end participation in the negative and repetitive dialogue.

Identifying Behaviors as A Caregiver is a Start to Better Caregiving Relationships

Other behaviors, like avoiding a parent when a child is upset, may be part of a relationship pattern.  How many of us avoid a person or stop talking to someone when we are upset or angry.

We may avoid others for fear we might say something we will regret.  Avoidance may be the result of anger we do not know how to manage. Avoidant behavior can be a way of punishing someone who has upset us or hurt our feelings.

If we can become aware of our behaviors, the idea of being open to change becomes possible. Changing our behaviors can take work. Learning to understand our emotions and to express our feelings in a way that supports open conversations is a path forward.

Caregiving involves relationship conflicts because of all of the changes involved; the life of the caregiver changes. The life of the elderly parent changes because of health concerns and physical or mental declines. By learning how to manage our emotions and communicate effectively, we can begin to understand how to respond and what to do with stubborn elderly parents.

Stubborn Elderly Parents Greatest Fears

Anyone can become angry. The trick to managing this emotion is understanding who we are angry with and why. Understanding what to do with stubborn elderly parents benefits from a skill called emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is not a skill that we born with, But it is a skill we can learn. Emotionally intelligent people pay attention to what they are feeling and try to understand the source of their feelings. They are empathetic to how other people feel. Many caregivers have a similar quality of being empathetic.

Emotionally intelligent people can manage their emotions to the point of stability. There are no significant ups or downs.

Managing emotions can be difficult. In caregiving, there are times when we want to blow off steam, like a volcano or a steam train engine. Regulating our emotions requires that we think before we speak and act.

The idea is to reflect and react, instead of the opposite. In 20+ years of working in the caregiving and healthcare systems, there were plenty of times when I wanted to blow like a volcano but did not. I realized that while this may have made me feel better, blowing like a volcano would have done damage to the situation and the relationships involved.

Reflect and React

By reflecting and then reacting, I was able to focus the conversation and the relationships on the question of what is good for this client? What are we, or what should we be trying to accomplish?

The focus could not be in the self-interests of the people involved. What we want as individuals may be in direct conflict with what an elderly parent wants or what a situation needs to move forward. This can also be difficult to admit when we believe that things should be a certain way.

Let me use the idea of advocacy to illustrate this idea. As a court-appointed guardian and a medical power of attorney, it was my responsibility to know my client’s wishes above all else. When there were emergency room admissions or questions about testing, I was able to explain to medical personnel the result that I wanted. I was able to ask the right questions to determine a path toward this result.

Many times healthcare professionals disagreed with me. Disagreements occurred because they did not understand the legal responsibility that I held as a court-appointed guardian or medical power of attorney. Legal responsibilities and roles are often misunderstood or unknown by healthcare professionals because this is not their expertise.

The Legal Responsibility to Advocate

In all situations where there was disagreement, I explained the legal responsibility to my client and my duty to do what my client wanted. There were times when I said, “I’m the one who has to go in front of the judge and explain what happened or did not happened. You don’t have that legal responsibility, I do. Please consider what I am asking you to do.”

As one might imagine, these conversations did not always run smoothly. Some physicians have egos. Physicians rarely want to be told what to do. In all cases, I relied upon facts. I had medical records. I knew the client’s history better than the physician. These requirements are the same for family members acting in these roles. Being a court-appointed guardian or a power of attorney is a substantial responsibility that many family members don’t understand.

I have been fired by physicians who disagreed with my responsibility to advocate for my clients. I have fired physicians for not being willing to work with me toward the wishes of my clients. There were physicians who viewed my clients as old and undeserving of car and treatment.

Managing care for elderly loved ones can be challenging. Add this onto working with a stubborn elderly parent and caregivers can feel overwhelmed.

Don’t Get Down in the Mud

One of my favorite bosses and mentors, when I worked in the corporate world, taught me a very important lesson. He said, “don’t get down in the mud with others; you’ll only lose.” This is where I developed the mindset of creating no adversarial relationships when caring for loved ones.

We all have times when we would like to yell, scream, and be angry with someone. Take out that energy at the gym, on a long walk, or have a good scream in your car. Then reflect and react. Take that energy and put it into creating solutions and building relationships and bridges.

Our actions result in the actions of others who respond to us. By remaining calm and having the desire to work with others – instead of against them – caregiving relationships run much smoother.

Being motivated to achieve goals and manage behaviors and feelings. These are the traits and skills of an emotionally intelligent person. This is the positive energy required to deal with stubborn parents. Having or creating good social skills is another part of making family caregiving relationships—and all relationships better. Being willing and able to discuss feelings with others is a skill.

Making It All About You

In caregiving situations, we often default to making it all about us because our lives have changed significantly. The idea is to focus on the needs of our loved one. When this happens, we find that the idea of what to do with stubborn elderly parents becomes easier.

When we set aside longstanding relationship difficulties, it becomes easier to create and establish positive relationships with elderly parents who are at the end of their lives. We will all one day be in the position of our parents. We will hope that we have children or others who will care for us.

Introducing the Idea of Burden

Elderly parents don’t want to be a burden. The desire not to burden children is, in part, the reason that elderly parents may be viewed as stubborn. Much to their detriment, being stubborn can result in injuries, accidents, and further health declines.

While telling an elderly parent what to do is the easiest way to fail, explaining our actions and the reasons we want or do not want something can be helpful. The skills of emotional intelligence support these conversations.

I’m Doing This Because…Why We Need A Reason

When disagreements exist with stubborn elderly parents, explanations can be helpful. Explanations and reasoning are not helpful when an elderly parent is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Part of the diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s is the malfunctioning of the brain because of the disease.

Elderly parents with Alzheimer’s or dementia are unable to follow the details of an explanation. They are unable to reason or analyze the information as these are skills that the disease steals when the brain disease progresses.

For other elderly parents who are simply stubborn, a discussion of consequences can be helpful. These discussions may have to occur over some time to allow the parent to think about why a habit should be changed.

For example, “mom or dad, I know you don’t want to become a care burden. By doing “this thing,” you can remain in better health, feel more in control, and remain independent.” A parent may then be able to understand that not taking action can make the situation more burdensome.

We all have factors that motivate us toward action and demotivate us not to take action. When trying to decide what to do with stubborn aging parents if we can figure out the motivators, the situation may feel like less of a battle. Add to this a better emotional understanding of the way our parents feel and better communication skills, and we are well on the day to knowing what to do with stubborn aging parents and being a better caregiver.

©2019 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved



About Pamela Wilson

PAMELA D. WILSON, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA helps caregivers and aging adults solve caregiving problems and manage caregiving needs through online programs, live support groups, and an extensive caregiving library that includes articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars.

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