Telling Aging Parents What To Do

One of the biggest obstacles my clients struggle with is that it may be time to tell their parents what to do. They’ll tell me they’ve asked their parent to do this or suggested they try that and their mother or father hasn’t followed through. They wonder how they should approach it with them now. When I suggest that it may be time to be more direct with their parents, their response is usually, “I can do that?”

There does come a time when you can no longer wait for your parents to act. If their safety or wellbeing is at risk then it’s in their best interest that you try a different approach to prevent a crisis. For example, when there is a risk they will hurt themselves by falling or driving; be taken advantage of because they’re no longer making good decisions; or their health is suffering because they’re caring for their spouse or can’t fully take care of themselves any longer.

There are several things to keep in mind when you have to “tell” them what to do:

It should be done with respect. I don’t want to give you the impression it’s okay to boss them around. That probably didn’t work for you when you were a teenager, and it will have the same effect on your mother and father now.

It’s in their best interests. If your parents aren’t able to be rational about their situation and the need for it to change, then you need to do what’s best to insure they stay as safe and independent as possible.

Your motive should be their health and wellbeing. Emphasizing this as much as possible is important. You both want the same thing: their independence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean living on their own or continuing to drive. It does mean maintaining or improving their physical health so they can be as independent as possible given their limitations. Your goal is to prevent them from becoming incapacitated to the point they need a high level of care, which means a low level of independence.

Telling them what to do still means choices. The approach that works best, in my experience, is to give options. For example, “You can’t live at home any longer unless you have a caregiver. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll have to move to assisted living.”

Show understanding but stay firm. In the ideal world they would instantly agree. In the real world they’re likely to get mad, defensive, cry… You can, and should, let them know you understand why they feel the way they do AND they still have to do it.

Set a date for a decision and for action. If you don’t do this it can continue to be a L-O-N-G and repetitious conversation with no end. If it has to happen, it has to happen. The situation you’re dealing with determines the deadline. If they’re unsafe now, then a decision needs to happen in days, not weeks and months.

This may not be an easy conversation for you or your mother and father. It’s a sign they’re getting older. To them it means letting go of more independence. To you it can mean that you have to accept they’re getting older and your roles are changing. You’re beginning the journey of letting go of the parent you’ve known all your life.

Would you like to talk about your specific situation?

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