Guiding Older Adults to Accept Our Help

My friend Erica called yesterday, asking my advice on how to “manage” her parents.

Erica’s extended family got together for the 4th of July holiday. It was the first time she had seen her parents in person (both in their mid-eighties) in nearly four months.

Something was off. Her mom was leaning to the side while she walked, almost limping. According to Erica, her dad was also much quieter than usual, maybe even depressed. But when she asked her parents what was going on, they both said, “We’re fine,” and wouldn’t talk about it anymore.

Responses like these are not uncommon. Most of the calls we receive here at 2Sisters come from adult children; more often than not, the parents are not yet on board with getting help.

I don’t just mean they are not on board with moving to an assisted living, either. They don’t want help of any kind, whether that’s Meals on Wheels, regular housekeeping, or support in any other daily activities.

“Independence” Means Something Different

Older adults today were raised to view “independence” as synonymous with “self-reliant.” They are the “can do” generation. They mow their own lawns, they wash their own cars, and if something needs fixing around the house, you can bet they have a tool for that.

Their children — people like Alyson and me — have a different view. To us, independence is about living our most optimal lifestyle. We want to live with as much comfort and ease as possible and if there’s a way to effectively delegate something — to another person, an app, or an outsourced service — we are on board.

We have learned that a person can be more independent by utilizing available resources. This includes assisted living. In our work with older adults, they usually experience an increased level of independence (and privacy, if they are used to home care) when they move to a place that is designed to offer exactly that.

I made two suggestions to my friend Erica:

#1. Show by Example

I’m a wife, mother and business-owner. That works (usually) because I have learned to find help where I can, whether that means automated reminders, hiring a landscaping company, or summer camp to occupy my daughter during the day. You probably do many of the same kinds of things to make your life easier, too.

So, model this for your parents. Show them what works in your life and explore how similar types of things could work for them. A weekly cleaning service means more time for dad to enjoy gardening. Online banking means less time spent by mom writing checks (and fewer errors, once that old calculator is no longer needed!).

The point is, if they see how your life is better as a result of outside help, they may be more likely to get past the stigma and imagine it for themselves.

#2. Develop a Back-Up Plan, Together

Nobody wants to admit they are (literally) losing a step. Having it pointed out in excruciating detail by a child (it doesn’t matter that you are now an adult) is rarely productive.

Instead, I recommend beginning with a “hypothetical” discussion:

“Dad, I know you’re feeling healthy now and you don’t see the need to move. But if and when the time comes that a change is needed, it’s going to be my responsibility and honor to make sure you are taken care of. So, I need to know what you want. If we start now, we can narrow our focus and consider options without feeling pressure. Will you participate in that with me?”

In our case, Alyson and I invited our parents to tour an assisted living, “just to get a feel for what’s out there.” It required our asking them two or three times over as many months, but one day, the stars aligned, and they agreed. Sure enough, they saw something they loved and put their house on the market a few months later.

If you can take the time to listen to your parents and create a back-up plan that truly addresses their needs, concerns, and desires, they may be willing to accept your help and make a move sooner than they would have anticipated.

It’s All About Communication

As we get older and begin to lose some of our abilities, we enter a developmental phase characterized by diminishing physical and cognitive capacity. These are not welcomed changes; appeals to logic regarding safety and wellbeing (even from loved ones) are often completely dismissed.

Under these circumstances, open communication is paramount. Listen — patiently and without motive — and do your best to hear both what they are and aren’t saying. Then work with them to develop plans that work for everyone involved.

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