When Elderly Parents Won’t Listen
The Caring Generation® – Episode 136 May 4, 2022. On this program, family caregivers can learn what to do when elderly parents won’t listen. Caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson shares both sides of this issue, adult children who become frustrated and aging parents and spouses who feel nagged by well-intended family.
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As a family caregiver, what can you do when elderly parents won’t listen? Caregivers—trying to be helpful—can become frustrated with others who refuse to listen or act on the advice they give.
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Let’s look at giving advice from two perspectives. The first is the idea of providing unsolicited advice and the motivation underneath the suggestions.
Then second, what might not be considered when advising because you don’t’ fully realize what it takes to do what you recommend or the unintended consequences of implementing the recommendation. This perspective is where caregivers and most people run into trouble.
Caregivers Feel Devalued
Any person giving advice may feel insulted or angry when others do not value the information you offer or elderly parents or a spouse refuses to follow the guidance. So, let’s start with questions to ask about giving advice.
- Under what circumstances do you find yourself giving advice?
- How often do you give advice—daily, weekly, once a month?
- Do you give advice only when people ask, or do you constantly tell other people what you think—even when they don’t ask?
You might be wondering if I ask myself these questions since I essentially provide education and give advice. All of these podcasts, the videos, the articles, and the content I create are in response to questions caregivers ask.
I do my best to be balanced and give the pros and cons of situations and the consequences of taking action or not acting because, whether you feel like it or not, everyone has a choice.
Why Aging Parents Won’t Listen
1 – Suspicion or Concern About Intent
If you are an adult child trying to get your parent to do something, they may be suspicious of your intentions. Think about your motivation. Why do you want a parent or a spouse to do something?
Does the advice benefit you, them, or is it mutually beneficial? Here’s an example. After my mom died, my sister attempted to convince my father to sell his home and move into an apartment complex down the street from her.
My father resisted. He lived in the family home for almost 70 years. He knew the neighborhood and all of the neighbors—and they knew him. The house had a large backyard garden where dad spent most of his time when the weather was nice.
Moving to a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony had no appeal. So dad refused to move.
The motivation for my sister is that it would have been more convenient for her if he had been nearby and something had happened. My dad’s house was on my sister’s way to work. It might have taken her another 10 minutes to make a detour.
At the time, my father could still take care of himself. He took his medications, still drove his car, and was in good physical condition for his age. He had arthritis and a few aches and pains, but overall he was self-sufficient.
My sister helped with re-ordering his medications, setting up med boxes, going to doctor appointments, and ensuring he was doing social activities. My father was lucky. At the time of his death, he was still living in the family home.
Time Caring for Aging Parents Can Be a Motive for Giving Advice
Unlike the care situation with my father, I realize that having loved ones who are independent is not the situation for caregivers of parents or spouses who have significant health issues. Time devoted to care by family caregivers ranges from 20 to 30, to 40 or more hours a week.
Caregiving is work. The effort is physically and emotionally exhausting. A parent or spouse who expects help may not understand the effect of needing help on family members.
In this situation, family caregivers who feel burdened may suggest or advise loved ones that it’s time to accept caregivers in the home or move to a care home or assisted living. In some cases, the recommendation may be a memory care community if mom, dad, or a spouse is unsafe, diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and should not be living alone at home.
Making Any Change Can Be Scary for Elderly Parents
Caregiving responsibilities constantly change. As a result, becoming a caregiver who learns to balance change by gaining emotional intelligence can make responding positively to the ongoing ups and downs a little easier.
Accepting help in the home or moving out of a family home is a significant change for a parent—like my dad, who lived in the same house for many years. In addition, if a parent has not remained socially active, there may be a fear of moving to a community of strangers.
Add to this fear that the idea of cleaning out the house that may be too overwhelming. If you have lived in a home for any length of time, you know that closets, unused bedrooms, basements, and garages quickly fill up with stuff.
Imagine the time and effort it takes to clean out 30 or 40 years of things your parents could not give away or throw out. I know some of you have already done this. It can take weeks or months because you really should go through everything. You don’t know what might be tucked away in a box in a closet or somewhere else.
So here’s a quick story on this topic. I moved a client from a nursing home to a personal care home. I and my staff had to clean out the house to put it up for sale.
As I was cleaning out a closet I noticed a box on the top shelf tied with a box. In the box were the cremated remains of my client’s wife. Since he was a veteran I was able to have her placed at the local VA cemetery.
2 – Unable to See the Benefit of the Advice
When elderly parents won’t listen, consider that they may be unable to see the benefit of the advice. Let’s relate this to an experience you may have had.
You take mom or dad to the doctor who recommends a medication, suggests reducing consumption of foods high in cholesterol, or physical therapy exercises. One or all of these recommendations may receive a big no from mom or dad.
You might hear, “why should I do that” and “I’m too old to change now.” If your parent is not interested in the “why,”—they may not have these actions are necessary. A solution is for you to understand the short and long-term consequences and be able to explain these in a manner that gets your parent’s attention.
How Can Caregivers Support Change?
What actions can caregivers take to help spouses or parents change?
- Can you pick up, organize medications, and set a medication box on the kitchen counter?
- Are you in a position to walk with your parent every day or hire someone to help with this task?
- Is it possible to have pre-prepared or ready-to-heat meals low in cholesterol available for parents? By this, I don’t mean TV or frozen dinners. Those can have a lot of salt, fat, sugar, and other ingredients that are not good for you.
Help with Physical Activity or Therapy
Most parents want to remain in their homes. Often the thing that takes away this ability is a physical weakness or a fall. If you want to learn more about what causes falls in the elderly, listen to the Caring Generation podcast Episode 33 to learn more.
You can request a doctor to write an order for physical therapy in the home or at a walk-in location. If home, a physical therapist will visit to evaluate your parent’s physical strength and coordination.
If a loved one is a fall risk, balance exercises and exercises to strengthen the arms and legs may be offered by the physical therapist. The challenge is that physical therapists don’t come to the home indefinitely.
The visits are short-term, to teach mom, dad, or a spouse how to do the exercises. The expectation is that these activities will be continued.
So, what can you do as the caregiver?
- Learn the exercises?
- Do the exercises with a parent each time you visit?
- Create a calendar reminder schedule to do the exercises every day and check them off?
A Lack of Purpose or Motivation Dampens Good Intentions
How often is there an initial motivation to do something, and then a distraction or a barrier happens, and the activity ends? For example, maybe you started a project around the house or yard, and other priorities took over.
Or you realized the project would take a lot more time than you initially expected. So you decided to take this one off your list because you will never get around to it.
Underestimating the time or effort it takes to change a habit, or complete tasks happens in caregiving and many areas of life. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get in over our heads when we have no prior track record of accomplishing something.
We might think X or Y is easy and then realize that completing the task is unrealistic. For example, changing eating habits or a diet overnight can be challenging. If you tried—you know.
But making small changes every day in diet, walking daily, and checking off other beneficial actions eventually shows results. Unfortunately, we are a society that wants instant change and instant success. This can be unrealistic thinking.
3 – You Are Still The Child
Another reason elderly parents won’t listen is that they still see you as a twelve-year-old child. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, telling your parents what to do isn’t acceptable.
The other consideration is that many factors are involved in what might seem like a simple change or a decision. But, caregivers may not find this out until something like a new health diagnosis occurs.
In other cases, a parent may have had a long-standing health issue that suddenly is causing more problems. Examples are high blood pressure that morphs into circulatory issues, an irregular heartbeat, or that results in a life-changing stroke.
Managing New Health Conditions
One example is a parent diagnosed with type 1 diabetes who has to check blood sugar and dose insulin. Responding to a new diagnosis can feel overwhelming
Managing type 1 diabetes also involves changing a diet, daily exercise, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and managing the mental stress from seeing high numbers whenever a blood sugar reading is taken.
For persons with type 1 diabetes interested in technology, using a CGM and an insulin pump can be positive and life-changing if one can learn to use technology. You’ve probably seen television commercials for continuous glucose monitor systems with actors holding cellphones next to a monitor on the back of their arm and getting a number readout from a CGM app.
4 – Nagging
More reasons elderly parents won’t listen is that children can be so worried and focused on solving parents’ problems that this interest, while well intended, can feel like constant “nagging.” Have you ever felt nagged by someone to do something?
Feeling nagged can result in avoiding the person or avoiding the subject, which in either case isn’t good for caregiving relationships. On the other hand, some caregivers have a need to be needed.
A need to be helpful can translate to wanting to save the world by being outer-focused. Being a family caregiver is stressful enough without taking on problems outside of the family or personal problems.
Consider this, for every piece of advice you give someone else, give yourself a piece of advice. Then, make that change yourself for every change or action you suggest that someone else does.
5 – Viewing Others as Insensitive or Non-Empathetic
Constantly telling parents or a spouse what to do can be viewed as insensitive or lacking empathy for the needs or concerns of the care receivers. To help this make more sense, let me relate the idea to an interaction that caregivers often mention.
Caregivers ask, “how do I respond when someone asks how I am and then doesn’t want to listen?” In this context, it’s essential to realize that “how are you” is a pleasantry. It’s a greeting and is part of beginning a social conversation.
Understand that the people saying “how are you?”—if they are not a close friend of yours—are making polite conversation. They don’t want to know how you are, especially if you blurt out a long list of problems or talk about the care situation with elderly parents or a spouse. That is way too much information!
Sometimes blurting out is called venting. Venting has a time and place, usually in an on-site or online caregiver support group where other people have similar experiences. If you need a place to vent and be heard, I invite you to join my online caregiver support group on Facebook.
It’s called The Caregiving Trap and is named after my book of the same name. This online support group is a place for caregivers from all over the world to come together to share stories and support each other.
Expectations About Being Interested Exist
So, let’s turn around the situation where someone asks how you are, and you expect them to take an interest in you. Generally, acquaintances or strangers have no interest in listening because they don’t know you very well or can’t relate to being a caregiver because they have never had the experience.
Your mom, dad, or spouse complains about something. They don’t feel well today. You were supposed to show up with groceries, and you did, but you forgot the Skippy Peanut butter. So their world comes crashing down because all they had to look forward to was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
You were doing a good deed and were criticized. This type of interaction can make anyone feel unappreciated or resentful. You may ask yourself, “why do I even bother when this is the thanks or recognition I get?”
Life-Effecting Changes Are A Big Deal
While you may not be experiencing the problems of your parents, poor health, arthritis, exhaustion—strike that I know a lot of exhausted caregivers—trouble walking up and down the steps, or maybe grieving the loss of the ability to drive. These are life-changing events that are a big deal for a parent because they were not expected or planned.
There are also times when life-changing decisions can no longer be delayed. This occurs after multiple falls, hospitalizations, parents getting lost while driving a car, and other situations that might seem impossible until they happen to you.
So when you give advice that makes these issues seem minor, unimportant, or easy to work through, your parents may refuse the advice or become resentful. Resentment between caregivers and care receivers happens in caregiving relationships when both sides don’t feel like they are being heard or are comfortable expressing their concerns.
6 – Cognitive Issues Can Slow Decision-Making
Six for why elderly parents won’t listen may include memory loss. Do your parents have the cognitive ability to understand the advice, the consequences, or the effects of the decisions? Is it time to plan for memory care?
If there is a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, comprehending and making decisions may still be possible in the early stage. But not likely in the latter stages when memory loss becomes quite advanced.
In general decision-making, your mind may grasp information quickly. But a more thorough discussion may be necessary with your parents. These discussions can require more patience and time than you feel you have.
The critical idea is not to rush the decisions and schedule them when you have the time, and your parent is in a position where they are willing to listen and participate.
Helpful Solutions to Consider When Elderly Parents Won’t Listen
When elderly parents won’t listen, family caregivers can implement many strategies and tactics. But, to begin, family caregivers and care receivers must agree on the goals to be accomplished.
If you are at odds with goals, here are some ideas to move forward.
1 – Perceiving Problems Differently
Until caregivers understand how care receivers perceive the problem, you can’t get to square one. It’s easy for caregivers to get into a rut and make erroneous assumptions about you know.
Having an accurate understanding is part of the path to solving reasons elderly parents won’t listen. This takes making time to listen, be interested, and ask questions.
People place their lives into the context of experiences, knowledge, interactions with other people, and a long list of other things. For this reason, caregivers, parents, and spouses can have totally different beliefs about a subject or how to approach problems.
Compare and Contrast
Here’s an example. I was having a conversation with a caregiver looking for a care community for a parent. I was asked to make some recommendations, so I did.
My suggestions were based on personally visiting the locations, and in some cases, I had personal experience managing care for clients who lived in these communities. So my personal experience, research, and gaining knowledge about the communities were the basis of the recommendation.
The family caregiver looked at the websites and immediately said that some of the communities I recommended were not a good fit because their websites were not as elaborate or detailed as others. So when you look at this contrast, you can see that perceptions of the communities are based on different factors.
This contrast may be helpful for you if you are looking for a care community for your parent. A parent or one of your siblings may have a totally different impression than you do based on the criteria they use to evaluate information, a care community, or an interaction with another person.
When evaluating care communities, there are so many factors to consider. Take care not to make a hasty judgment based on superficial characteristics.
A care community that provides excellent care may not have the most up-to-date website. The building may be ten years old versus newly built or recently remodeled.
Remember the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover?” This saying applies when choosing a care community for a parent or a spouse. You may not find a perfect location, but there are communities that provide a higher level of care and attention than others.
Emotions Affect Decision Making
Add to external factors the emotional mindset of the family caregiver, who may feel guilty about moving a loved one to a care home. So instead of being open-minded, It’s easier to push the information away.
It is easier to say that they don’t want to visit because the website doesn’t look right or the printed materials are not as fancy.
Until you physically visit a community, learn about them, meet the staff and talk to residents and their families, you will not have a good idea of the offerings or whether you feel that the staff will be caring and attentive.
While visiting multiple communities may be time-consuming and emotionally draining—you may see things that make you uncomfortable—the goal is to find a community where mom or dad or a spouse can live for a long time.
It’s best to avoid making a rushed choice and then learn that you chose the wrong community one or six months. A poor choice will be hard on you and even more challenging for your parent, who has to be uprooted and moved a second time.
So understanding the perspectives, the value systems, and how family members evaluate situations is essential to moving everyone in the family toward being on the same page with the same goals. Know that gaining agreement can take time and consistent effort.
2 Processing Information Differently
Number two for solutions about what to do when elderly parents won’t listen is acknowledging people process problems and information differently. You may be a person with a solid foundation and many life experiences.
As a result, you make decisions very quickly. Another family member may need a week, several weeks, or months to decide.
3 – Thinking Elderly Parents Don’t Know the Score
When caregivers feel that elderly parents won’t listen, the problem may be that caregivers underestimate loved ones. Your parents may feel that you believe they don’t know what has to be done when they know more than you think.
But they may not want to do anything today. So the difference of opinion related to reasons elderly parents won’t listen may simply be a timeline difference. You want it now. Mom and dad aren’t ready.
If you have reasons or facts that confirm why making a decision is time-sensitive, then present the information. Some decisions are time-sensitive.
On the other hand, how often have you waited a day or two to make a decision, and you received new information that was very helpful and allowed you to make a better decision?
Instead of giving advice, another path to helping loved ones make decisions—is presenting information, alternatives, and a thoughtful list of pros and cons. Avoid becoming stuck in having things done your way. There may be options you have not considered.
Presenting both sides of an option may help you look at the situation in a way that you didn’t previously. You may find this a learning experience that results in better decision-making. Imagine how life might be if everyone in the family agreed instead of fighting or second-guessing about what should have been done differently.
4 – Stop Jumping In to Save The Day
Family caregivers may want to be so helpful that you jump in to save the day because in the early stages of being a caregiver, doing is easy. Doing and doing is how caregivers become overwhelmed and burned out over time.
It’s as if you take over your parents’ life without involving them or asking their opinions. These actions can lead to reasons elderly parents won’t listen. When this happens caregivers can feel like a failure.
You have clearly shown through your acts of taking over that you don’t care what parents or a spouse thinks. When loved ones increasingly rely on you, taking over becomes more common.
In a sense, you become an overcontrolling caregiver that has worked yourself into the caregiving trap. You are doing everything for a parent you have trained to expect that this is what you will do forever because you gave advice and expected your parent to follow your directions without objecting.
When Giving Advice Backfires
Interesting when you think about it. Caregivers may want to give advice but not think about the consequences.
When parents listen and follow, this results in parents becoming more dependent on the caregivers because they aren’t allowed to make their own decisions. As a result, this type of relationship can lead to failure on both parts.
Caregivers can feel like they have given up their lives caring for parents and failed at careers, marriages, raising children, and managing their health because of everything they gave up. Parents can fail in health and mental wellbeing when options and choices are not presented or explained to them.
5 – Allowing Others to Fail
Number five for solutions to reasons elderly parents won’t listen may be the most difficult. Let others fail and learn on their own.
Everyone has been there, learning by trial and error and sometimes the school of hard knocks. When you fall, you dust yourself off and get back up. Wisdom and knowledge are gained by succeeding and failing.
So next time you are tempted to give advice, and you are not asked, be silent. Listen and understand.
Wait for the other person to ask your opinion. Suspend judgment.
Play devil’s advocate in your mind. This is excellent practice for the time when someone does ask your opinion. Then you’ll be prepared to be more balanced and thoughtful.
Not trying to influence another person’s decision but sharing the pros and the cons to allow them to choose is the best way to avoid situations when elderly parents won’t listen.
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