I recently received a call from Paul, a successful businessman in his sixties, begging for my advice regarding his parents. He was at the hospital with them after his elderly father had accidentally burned the house down. Paul had tried for years to convince them to move to assisted living or accept a professional in-home caregiver. A couple of times he even had everything lined up, but they’d always cancel at the last minute. I felt so bad for him and suggested it might be best to wait until his parents recovered from the smoke inhalation before trying, once again, to get them the help they needed. Paul burst into tears at my suggestion. “I can’t wait!” he cried. “My father already hired a contractor to rebuild the house. Jacqueline, my parents are 90 and 92!”

I wish I had the iron-clad solution to this problem. So many people are dealing with parents who want so badly to remain independent but won’t accept the necessary help that will allow them to do just that. Since our civil rights are (fortunately) very strong in the United States, unless an individual is legally proven incompetent (a difficult process that is especially hard at the beginning stages of dementia), they cannot be forced to do anything against their will.

The best way to increase the odds of a parent accepting help later in life is by starting conversations about long-term care early on—long before their health and cognitive function start to decline. When a person’s wishes have been discussed openly for years (and properly documented with living wills, trusts, and powers of attorney), the transition is far less traumatic when they must be acted on.

The problem is that so many people never get up the nerve to broach such a sensitive subject, or every time they try, the parent gets mad or goes into denial. Either way, nothing ever gets clarified or resolved. If this sounds like your situation and you’ve been avoiding having “The Talk,” realize that when a crisis like Paul’s strikes and you have to step in, you’ll have a lot of last-minute convincing to do.

Health and Safety Are the Top Priorities

Take a moment to remember when you were the child. Wouldn’t your parent(s) have done everything in their power to keep you safe, no matter how much you protested? As hard as it is, you have to accept that your roles have been reversed. You are now the responsible party who must persist in making sure your loved ones are safe.

When you know in your heart that your parent(s) cannot remain safely in their home any longer, don’t let demands, protests and pleas cloud your better judgment. You know what they need. Don’t let them end up a sad statistic by waiting for a middle-of-the-night phone call about a broken hip, medication overdose or car accident. These things happen all the time.


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Bring in Back-Up

If you don’t seem to be getting anywhere talking to your parent(s) by yourself, it’s important to pull out all stops. Ask relatives, friends, clergy, healthcare professionals/doctors, and anyone else whom they respect to assist with convincing them it’s time for a change. It can be a simple call or an in-person visit to express their concern and share words of encouragement and support. Just try to avoid creating a sense that their friends and family are pressuring them into a decision. This will only create more resistance and resentment.

Do your best to collaborate with your parent(s) and find solutions that everyone can live with. Research all available options and discuss them together. If your loved ones are part of the decision, they’ll be more likely to get on board.