Think your aging parents are the only ones who are stubborn?
Then you should hear Donna’s story. Donna’s mom Mary (70) and dad John (82) live alone in their family home of 40+ years. Mary, a retired teacher, is active in her community. She fills her days with church volunteering and tutoring. John, a former business owner, has slowed down after a stroke three years ago but is still fiercely independent and single-minded.
A few months ago, their home was in a mandatory evacuation zone because of wildfires.
When the evacuations were first announced, John dug in his heels. He insisted that the fast-moving fire was “no big deal”. No one was going to tell him to leave his own house. Mary spent several hours chipping away at his resolve and finally bringing Donna and the grandkids into the conversation. John gave in with one important condition: he would drive himself so that his beloved old truck wouldn’t get left behind.
While driving her own car, Mary got separated from John. In their rush to leave, Mary and John both forgot to pack their cell phone chargers, so within a few hours neither had a functioning cell phone. Beside herself from worry, Mary drove to a friend’s home in the neighboring county to regroup.
It took her nearly eight hours to get back in touch with John, who finally answered his cell phone from home. It turns out that John changed his mind about evacuating and drove himself back home, evading police barricades all the way.
The story had a happy ending, with the family reunited and the house intact. But this was a terrifying ordeal for Donna who watched it helplessly from across the state. This isn’t the first time her aging dad stubbornly insisted on ignoring good advice, and it likely won’t be the last. What’s the best strategy for headstrong aging parents who just won’t listen?
Step 1: Try to understand their thinking.
When someone won’t listen to good reason, it is easy to label them as “out of their mind.” However, there is often logic as to how your aging parents see the situation – even if that logic is flawed. What are they afraid of? What is driving them to dig in their heels and stubbornly refuse to see your point? What in their past experience makes them ignore your advice?
In John’s case, his 40+ years of living in a fire-prone area have brought more close calls and evacuation drills than he can count. Perhaps he was certain that the fires were not an immediate threat. Or maybe he was remembering all the other times when evacuations were ordered as a precaution. Right or wrong, John’s experience had him convinced that there was no urgent need to leave home. Understanding this (and pointing out how this time might be different) could be helpful in structuring the argument in favor of leaving early.
Step 2: Determine how serious the situation is.
For adult children living far away from their aging parents, things can sometimes look more dire than they actually are. Sure, it would give you peace of mind to have your parent transition to an assisted living situation after a fall or a scare. However, if your Mom or Dad isn’t ready to talk about it, the fight may not be worth fighting. Unless there is a true emergency, you may have to let the situation develop, or take baby steps by suggesting that your parents hire a companion to help around the house for a few hours a day.
Step 3: Know when to let them make their own decisions.
This is true even if those decisions are bad. Your aging parents are adults who have the right to be autonomous, which includes making mistakes. Stepping in to curtail their freedom can have devastating consequences including the risk that you lose the open line of communications with your parents. At the end of the day, the relationship is all you have. You want them to feel comfortable calling you for help if and when they need it.
Step 4: Know when to draw the line.
That said, sometimes aging parents arrive at a point when their thinking or their view of the world is significantly impaired. This is not about common forgetfulness or mood swings, but rather about situations where they (or someone else) are seriously in danger. Remember that a doctor cannot declare someone incompetent just because he or she is making “bad decisions”. Taking away someone’s legal capacity is a lengthy and complex process that involves filing for guardianship, conducting psychological evaluations, attending court hearings, and more. If you are unsure about what to do, begin by talking to a medical specialist who can connect you with a social worker or an elder law attorney for a consultation.
Step 5: Go easy on yourself.
This may be difficult to accept, but sometimes there just isn’t a lot you can do other than be present and step in when help is needed. If you find that frustration and anxiety are getting to you, talk to a trusted friend who can serve as a voice of reason.
Finally, be clear on the danger signs. If you are worried about your aging parent’s diminishing capacity, start by reading up on common behaviors to watch for and personality changes that can alert you about the need for a change of plan. Even if your parents won’t take your advice now, it is critically important that you remain open, present and available when they are eventually ready to accept your help.
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