Why Old People Refuse Help

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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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17 Comments

My Mom [97] returned home from the hospital this afternoon after having a sinkable episode, first time she fell that I knew about.... and at the doctor's request I hired professional caregivers to watch my Mom and Dad for 24 hour shifts or get them to move to Assisted Living.

Today was the first Caregiver, super nice fellow that my Dad really liked but Mom couldn't understand why he was washing dishes.... "if he is going to help, have him do yard work" she said..... [sigh]

The manager came in to help after he left his shift and Dad was more than happy to have someone help him... Mom became territorial.... the Caregiver heated up some food in the refrigerator and Mom took the bowl from Dad and was going to throw it out. How dare another woman cook for Dad. Mom wanted her out of the house. The Caregiver eventually convince my Mom that her husband was very hungry, can he please eat. She finally agreed but wouldn't eat herself, and pouted.

Oh dear, we have a problem in the room.

Mom is in denial that she and Dad can still live by themselves in their house. They are both fall risks, especially my Dad who tumbles on a regular basis and can usually get himself up after quite some time. I can't pick him up, and neither can my sig other because we are aging ourselves. Which I think is another denial by my parents, we aren't 35 any more, that ship sailed many decades ago.

It's sad, my parents still want to be very independent, why can't they enjoy the help? I would be thrilled to have someone wanting to do the laundry, vacuuming, cleaning the toilets, cooking and making sure I was doing ok :)
I am a 'care giver' as a Stephen Minister to a woman who is 88. Actually I guess we started out that way and now she is, to me, my beloved friend. I have really seen her age in the three years that we have 'been in each other's lives' and she calls me her dear friend. She never had children of her own, but she has a wonderful, loving 'adopted' family (who I know) and they have increasingly been filling the role of her children as she needs more and more help. I absolutely know how much they give to her and care for her. I am sure they have her POA, they own a CPA firm and so I am sure they help her handle finances, etc. But this woman has told me that although the wife of this couple has been gently insisting that she attend her doctor visits with her, she has been avoiding allowing her to go in to the visit with her. She seems to not want to relinquish that part of her own care. I can certainly see her becoming weaker and she does has almost total hearing loss. But she still drives her car, lives in her own home and I think is waiting out the demise of the last of her four cats (age 17!) before she finally leaves her home. She feels no pressure from me, although I have many of the same points of view as the family she has 'adopted' and as a matter of fact, we share certain aspects about her condition, mind set, etc. I would never betray a confidence but I think the point is, she feels that I am somehow 'neutral' here so there is no threat that I will in any way take her feeling of running her own life from her. She never has asked me to go with her to visit her doctor but I would if she did.
This woman had an amazing life, career, is funny and sassy, still a very Christian woman, and she is full of surprises in the things she says and the stories she tells. I see so much of myself in her, especially when she shows me pictures of her in her 50's. What a gorgeous and strong lady! She told me once that her first husband confessed, after 27 years of marriage, that he loved her and loved another woman (who was 21 years her junior!) and he didn't know what to do. She TOLD him what to do - GET OUT. She subsequently remarried a good man and was married to him almost 30 years. When he passed they both looked like a 'little old couple' and no one would have guessed what she had been through and the strength and independence she had. Sometimes we share a glass of red wine, which we both love, and if we go out to eat, we take turns buying. She keeps very accurate track of whose turn it is! Ha! She calls me 'my beloved friend'. I think what elderly folks want is to be seen not for who they have become on the outside but for who they still are on the inside. That's what I want too - I wish I had the body I had twenty years ago! And the face without wrinkles (I am 57). Those 20 years went by so fast and I know the next 20 will too. I never want anyone to call me sweetie or honey. That was for my husband, the man I love. Mrs. ______ or - if I say it's ok - my first name is what I want to be called. By nature the relationship between children and parents, even adopted (meaning later in life as I have described) does seem to become a power balance even with the most well meaning. Just the other day our son, who is expecting his first child with his wife, was working on me to convince us to move closer to them (they are 10 hours away). We WANT to do that, but he said to me in a kidding manner, "hey Mom, who's going to take care of you if you get sick down there?" and I told him "not so fast, buddy! We aren't old yet!". I know they would willingly take very loving care of us, but my immediate reaction was 'back off! Not quite ready for you to change my diapers yet!". It doesn't happen over night but it is a parent-child dynamic that develops over the cycle of life. I think what anyone wants is to be supported and feel respected and have the space to make their own choices. If a parent needs to be made to make a choice that is for their safety it might even be a good idea to pull in someone not up so close to the family (like a Stephen Minister) to help.
In short, we adult children are tasked with delivering the magic combination of Dr. Phil, Mr. Rogers, Edgar Cayce and Teepa Snow. Always. No room for a bad day. And did I mention that the magic combo is a moving target? It's exhausting.