Stubborn Aging Parents or Misunderstood? 12 Experts Weigh In
Throughout your life, you have more than likely listened to, depended on, or received advice from your parents. You may have even had moments when you didn’t want to listen to what they had to say.
But what happens when your parents get older and they get to the point where they don’t want to listen to you?
You may be concerned about their safety, well-being, financial stability, or health. You may think they would benefit from your advice about these things, but some parents may disagree with you.
They may be more interested in maintaining control over their own lives and staying independent.
While many people don’t require assistance from their children as they get older, there comes a time when some parents must rely on their adult children to help them make decisions that affect their lives. Though you might have the best intentions for your parents, they may still not want your help. You might consider them stubborn or “set in their own ways,” however, this might not be the case.
According to a study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B and led by Allison Heid, a gerontologist working with Rowan University and Penn State University, there is a discrepancy between what parents and their adult children see as stubbornness. More than 77% of children and 66% of parents claimed that parents’ behavior exhibited stubbornness at least part of the time. This study shows that one of the root causes of this parent-adult child battle that sometimes exists may be a mismatch of goals.
In the study, Dr. Heid explains that parents’ goals may be to remain independent and maintain their autonomy. They may do so by refusing assistance, continuing to drive when they probably shouldn’t, or refusing to alter their living arrangements. Adult children’s goals may be to keep their parents safe by restricting their driving, providing them with assistance, and encouraging them to consider other living arrangements that the children deem more appropriate or safer than the current living situations. These differing goals may create discord in the family due to the change in the balance of power that is taking place.
While some may argue that parents’ resistance to their children’s wishes could reflect obstinacy, defiance, or stubbornness, this study suggests that such persistence may actually be a sign of strength and tenacity on the part of the parents as they work toward their goals in spite of any obstacles or challenges.
In addition to this discrepancy in goals, perceived stubbornness may be associated with the quality of the parent-child relationships. For example, when parents and children have poor relationships, reaching common ground can be more challenging than when the relationships are good. The quality of the relationships may also play a role in determining how adult children avoid or respond to conflict.
So, what can you do if your parents are reluctant to share information with you, take your advice, or accept help? We asked twelve experts to share their thoughts on ways to talk with aging parents who you may perceive as acting stubborn.
1. Support Their Independence
Pamela D. Wilson, Caregiving Expert, Advocate, and Speaker – The Caring Generation
“Adult children may define parents as stubborn when the aging parent is trying to maintain as much independence as possible. In many care situations, adult children become impatient with aging parents who have slowed down. It’s easier and quicker for adult children to take over doing tasks. Taking away tasks that aging parents can still do has the opposite effect of creating more work for the caregiver. Supporting [the] independence of an aging parent is the best course of action in the long run.”
2. Acknowledge Their Concerns
Fritzi Gros-Daillon, MS CAPS, CSA, SHSS – Age Safe America
“If they are stubborn because they are unhappy with the shift from being the parent to being parented, then you need to take a mindful approach and acknowledge their concerns. Patience, fortitude, and grace are the qualities that may bring the best results.”
3. Avoid Confrontation
Roberta Satow, Ph.D. – Roberta Satow
“Don’t be confrontational or get engaged with stubborn parents. Expect that you will probably have to bring things up more than once.”
4. Use “I” Statements
Amy Goyer, AARP Family and Caregiving Expert and Author of Struggling Life, Work, and Caregiving – AARP Family Caregiving
“There are basic communication skills we can lose in families. Starting with ‘I’ statements is better than ‘you’ statements. ‘I want to make sure you’re safe” instead of ‘you shouldn’t be driving to church anymore.’“
5. Pick Your Battles
Bonnie Friedman, Author of Hospital Warrior: How to Get the Best Care for Your Loved One – Hospital Warrior
“Pick your battles. Let small things slide. Save your energy for talking about important issues, such as those that involve their personal safety or financial well-being. Find ways to spend time together, such as looking at old photo albums, listening to music, or playing games they enjoyed when [they were] younger.”
6. Involve Authority Figures
Anastasia Blaszczyk, Family Caregiver, President and Founder of Aging Parents Management – Aging Parents Management
“When dealing with stubborn parents, the problem is most likely the messenger. Bring in third parties to help you get through the situation. Stubborn parents may be more receptive to the opinions from people of authority – doctors, attorneys, social workers, etc. Estate planning attorneys do more than just create legal documents. They can also help with many of these difficult situations.”
7. Step Back to Give Some Space
Dr. Melissa Henston, Psychologist, PsyD – Colorado Neuro Behavioral Health
“If you have done everything and nothing is working, step back for a period and only do check-ins. Sometimes we are blocked at every turn and we throw up our hands. We want to walk away completely. Don’t despair. Visit and bring lunch or dinner. Call to simply ask how the day is going. Take them on an outing.”
8. Provide an Empathic Approach
Tami Neumann, CDCS, COO & Cathy Braxton, CDCS, CEO – Silver Dawn Training Institute
“When others make decisions for us or tell us which decisions we should be making for ourselves, it can lead us to feel insignificant and alone. Persons living with dementia live in this new reality every day. Of course, they would project their frustration through words and actions of refusal. In this situation, it is very important to remember the value of an empathic approach to the conversation.”
9. Begin with Mutual Trust
Matt Estrade, CAPS, President, Consultant, Trainer at Care Partner Mentoring, LLC – Peace With Dementia
“The quality of the relationship over a family’s lifetime can impact a parent’s response to an adult child’s advice. If the relationship has experienced trust over the years, there’s a better chance that your aging parents will listen to your reasoning. It’s never a guarantee, but it certainly helps to begin with mutual trust.”
10. Stay Calm
Toula Wootan, Caregiving Expert, Creator of Caregiver’s Coalition of Northeast Florida – Toula’s Tips for Caregivers
“Trying to remain calm for your own peace of mind and overall health is key. You can’t change them; don’t bother trying.”
11. Utilize a Middleman
Marti Weston, Independent Health Blogger on Aging, Caregiver – As Our Parents Age
“First, recognize what they are giving up as they age. In extreme situations get advocates like geriatric case managers to help. Sometimes it’s important to have a middle person who does not have all the emotional baggage.”
12. Learn the Facts and Discover Options Together
Rhonda Caudell, RN, CCM, The Aging Parent Expert – Endless Legacy
“Stubbornness could be a coping mechanism by resisting changes they believe they can control over the changes they aren’t able to control. They say they want ‘their way,’ but the truth is they don’t know all the available options for them now and/or they assume they know the options and really don’t. Let your parent know you don’t know all the answers either, but offer to discover with them some potential options as they age if they are ever needed. Don’t push, empathize, and help them see, discover, and learn the facts of aging options.”
Getting your parents to open up to you, listen to you, and discuss important decisions with you can be a challenge, especially if they are focused on making their own choices and staying independent. It’s important to consider the idea that maybe what you perceive as their stubbornness may be attributed to a mismatch of your goals and their goals for their lives. In fact, that stubbornness that you view as negative may reflect positive elements as your parents exert their independence by persistently showing perseverance, tenacity, and determination.
As you approach sensitive subjects and have these important discussions with your parents, It’s essential that you let them know that accepting your help doesn’t mean they are losing control over their own lives. They are just allowing you to be there for them if they need you. With a little empathy, respect, and trust, they may be more open to listening to your advice and accepting your help.Back to Blog