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Why Old People Refuse Help

Are you having trouble convincing your parents to let you help them keep track of their doctor's appointments or balance their checkbook?

In 2009, approximately one in five American seniors (age 75 and older) needed help with daily activities, including shopping, handling finances, managing medications and performing household chores, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

This equates to more than three million people—a figure that is set to surge as the baby boomer generation ages.

The problem is, that older adults are often resistant to receiving assistance from their grown children—even (and, sometimes, especially) when they desperately need it.

Recent research from Oregon State University sheds some light on why convincing an aging loved one to accept help can be so tricky.

After a series of in-depth interviews with seniors, their adult children and hired caregivers study author Michelle Barnhart and her colleagues concluded that many adults are offering assistance in a way that makes their parents feel, "old."

Who are you calling old?

In America, going grey is regarded in a distinctly negative light.

We equate advancing age with a host of undesirable traits, including dependence, forgetfulness, confusion, disengagement and a lack of productivity. It's no surprise that few adults—even those who are technically "senior citizens"—actually categorize themselves as being old.

"We go from thinking of ourselves as children, then young adults, then adults—then we stop," says Barnhart, who claims that conflicts arise when younger family members interact with their aging loved ones in ways that challenge their identity as a competent, capable adult.

Seniors may resort to risky retaliation

When their identity is threatened, older adults may lash out—sometimes engaging in dangerous behaviors to prove their youth.

Barnhart identifies four strategies a senior may adopt to convince younger family members of their continued vitality:

  • Hashing it out: Outright arguments are a common way for seniors to express their frustration at being categorized as old. An elder will try to persuade others that they are not as old, or incapable, as they seem.
  • Proving themselves: Mark, one of the interviewees participating in the study, repeatedly offered to help Bea, his 82-year-old mother in law, with household maintenance that required a ladder because he was afraid that she would lose her balance and fall. Bea responded by rebuffing Mark's request, proudly telling him every time she used the ladder to do something.
  • Preventing participation: When 89-year-old Abbie's (another interviewee) cardiologist started addressing her two adult daughters instead of her during an appointment, she banned them from the exam room. "I wanted to grab him by the collar and say, ‘Look, talk to me! I'm the patient!'" she says. "But that was easily corrected. They don't go in with me anymore."
  • Hiding their indiscretions: After Abbie's daughters tried to get her to stop driving, she would pretend to follow their advice, while secretly driving her sister around.

Getting your parent to accept help

Study authors identified two key tactics to help concerned adult children better communicate with their aging parents:

  • Get to know your parent: Before jumping in with suggestions, take the time to observe how your parent is doing. What are they capable of doing? What do they have trouble with? How do they identify themselves? Knowing your loved one's strengths and weaknesses can help you figure out what they really need help with, and how to offer your assistance.
  • Remember—it's not what you say, but how you say it: According to Barnhart, many conflicts can be avoided if the adult child takes time to frame their proposal in the right way. For example, instead of telling your parent that they're too old to drive to a doctor's appointment, offer to take them and then spend the day together afterwards.

Ultimately, Barnhart hopes the study will help make younger family members more aware of how they are communicating with their aging loved ones.

"The most surprising thing to me was how much control we actually have in terms of determining how we treat the people we're trying to help and how they see themselves in terms of old age," she says.

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