What Can You Do When Your Parents Need Help but Don’t Want It?
One of the toughest challenges adult children face is balancing our parents’ freedom to make their own decisions with their long-term interests, especially if we don’t think they’re making good choices.
Whether your parents are having trouble with keeping up the house, managing their money or simply staying healthy, there’s often some conflict between what parents want and what their adult children think they need. How can you help your parents when they don’t think they need help?
When Your Parents Need Help
If your parents haven’t reached this point, now’s the time to take steps to make future care decisions easier. You can talk to your folks about setting a power of attorney while they’re still in a clear frame of mind, to appoint someone they trust to carry out their wishes for care, finances and more if they’re ever unable to manage those decisions.
Also, just like the sex talk with your kids, you need to have many conversations about eldercare with your parents so you can both get used to the idea, explore your options and understand what your parents want — and don’t want — when they need care.
Of course, if you’re reading this, it’s probably because they’re already refusing help that you think they need for their wellbeing and your peace of mind. If that’s the case, here are some tips for balancing your parents’ right to autonomy with their need for help.
First, though, a few things to consider before you talk to your parents about your concerns:
In most cases, your folks can do what they want. Unless your parents have been declared legally incompetent, which is rare, they get to make their own choices. No matter how much protection you think your parents need, you’ll need to persuade them, not try to tell them what to do. Find allies in their clergy, doctors, family and friends, and anyone else who cares about their wellbeing and get on the same page if you’re worried about your parents living alone, managing their money or needing more help.
Their quality of life matters. Helping your parents age safely on terms they can agree to is one of life’s biggest challenges. Think of it as a collaborative, ongoing discussion.
Your definitions of independence, judgment and safety may differ from your parents. For example, your mom takes a fall at home, injures her foot and waits a week to go to the doctor. You may see this as poor judgment because you worry that she could have broken a bone. She may see it as prudent because she’s waiting to see if the injury improves on its own.
Your relationship with your parents matters. For one thing, they’ll always see you as their child, no matter how much older and wiser you’ve become. Just because you think the roles feel reversed doesn’t mean they see things that way.
You won’t win every battle. Expect your parents to weigh in with and stick to their opinions on where they want to age, who they want in their home and more. Focus on your top concerns for their comfort and safety — and decide in advance how much effort, money and time you can share to help them if their choices don’t work out. It’s okay to set some limits here, especially if you’re trying to maintain a career, put your children through colleges or save for your own retirement.
With all that in mind, here are some tips on getting your parents to accept help in different scenarios:
When Your Parents Need Help at Home
The signs that your folks need help around the house can be subtle, like changes in cooking and housekeeping. If you see mail piling up, new clutter or laundry sitting in baskets where things were neater before, it may be a sign that forgetfulness or mobility issues are taking hold. Another clear sign that your folks need a hand at home is spoiled food. If you’re consistently seeing expired dairy and meat in the fridge or pantry items infested with pests, your parents may not be able to see expiration dates clearly or they may be skipping meals.
If your folks don’t have a medical need for help with activities of daily living, any in-home help will have to be paid for out of pocket. This fact alone stops many seniors from getting help because they worry about draining their savings. If you can offer to pay for some specific services like dog walking, grocery delivery, house cleaning or laundry, consider framing your offer as a gift to them so they can better enjoy their retirement. You can also point out that accepting help is something they can do to calm your worries or reduce strain on you if you’re the one currently managing these tasks for them on top of your other responsibilities.
When Your Parents Need More Social Activity
Loneliness has real health impacts and if your parents don’t get out or have company often, they can place themselves at risk for illness. This doesn’t mean that living alone is necessarily bad – many older adults live alone and stay active in their communities and families. However, if you’ve noticed a decline in your parents’ social activities, especially if they’re unhappy about it, there are some steps you can take:
- Help your folks strengthen their community ties. Try to help them meet their neighbors, find free or low-cost things for them to do outside the house and arrange rides for your parents to get there. Many churches, public libraries and senior centers offer classes, clubs and parties tailored to the interests of older adults.
- Bring social time to them. If they’re in a rural area or have trouble leaving the house, connecting with family and friends online can help in the short term, and so can visits from family, a part-time home aide or volunteers. If your folks are truly isolated, they may ultimately enjoy life more in an active retirement or assisted living community, but they might not want to move. If you think your parents would be better off moving, know that convincing them is a heavy lift — be prepared to have multiple conversations about it, to back off if they don’t want to discuss it and to wait for them to arrive at that decision on their own rather than on your timetable.
When Your Parents Need Help Managing Their Money
As we get older, managing our household budget and savings can get tougher, thanks to age-related cognitive decline. The National Endownment for Financial Education says that our financial decisionmaking skills are in decline by the time we reach age 60 or so – or at any age after a dementia diagnosis or stroke.
The last thing any family needs is to discover that a parent has lost their hard-earned savings through fraud or mismanagement. Be alert for signs that your folks may be in need of extra financial guidance, as outlined by the NEFE’s Smart About Money site:
- A checkbook that is disorganized or missing register notes. Forgetfulness is one possibility, but another is that someone is taking checks from them to use for themselves.
- Bad investments. Older people are frequent targets of investment scams that promise unheard of returns — pitches designed to appeal to seniors who want to make their nest egg go as far as possible. You can learn more about other scams that target seniors at the National Council on Aging’s website.
- Collection notices or credit problems. This is a major red flag that indicates that your parents can no longer manage their finances effectively on their own, that they’ve run out of money but don’t want to admit it, or that someone has stolen their identity and is damaging their credit.
- New items your parents can’t explain buying. Forgetfulness and scams are possibilities here.
- Unpaid bills. Are your parents forgetting to pay, or are they short of money?
If you see any of these signs, talk to your parents to see if you can get a clear sense of what’s really going on. Most people don’t like to admit to needing help, so approach these conversations carefully. You might want to mention that a friend of a friend was having trouble remembering to pay bills, or that you’ve read that elder scams are so common that the National Council on Aging calls them “the crime of the 21st century.” Worried your folks have run out of money? You can mention a new study that found bankruptcy rates have doubled for Americans age 55 and up over the past quarter-century, due mostly to huge medical bills.
Once you understand why your parents’ financial warning signs are there, you can help them take action.
If your parents have been the victim of identity theft, encourage them to report it immediately to their banks, their creditors and the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Your folks can then request a freeze on their credit reports, which can prevent thieves from opening new accounts in their name. The freeze can be temporarily or permanently lifted when your parents choose. Just make sure they keep the PIN each agency will provide so they can do that. The Federal Trade Commission provides a step-by-step guide for identity theft victims to follow.
If your parents have been scammed, the National Council on Aging recommends filing reports with the police, your parents’ banks and Adult Protective Services in your state or territory. Realistically, it’s unlikely that their money will be recovered, so it’s a good idea for your folks to meet with an elder law attorney or senior financial planner to make a new retirement plan or, if the losses were major, consider filing for bankruptcy.
If your parents are having trouble managing their household finances, you can offer to be an extra set of eyes to help them keep current on bills. Your parents could add you on to their bank accounts, give you access to their online banking information or simply add your phone number to get text alerts if their account balances drop below a certain amount or if there’s an overdraft. You can also help your parents set up automatic bill paying through their bank. Another option is to encourage your folks to hire a reputable daily money manager to handle bills, bookkeeping and other financial tasks for them. You can learn more about what daily money managers do and how to find one here.
When Your Parents Need Round the Clock Help
Many older adults reach a point where they don’t have an immediate medical need for constant care or supervision and they can manage their tasks of daily living passably, but they could still use a helping hand throughout the day. This can be a tricky situation for families to navigate because frailty can lead to falls and other injuries, and each crisis requires family members to drop what they’re doing and respond. This sort of situation leads to tremendous caregiver stress, can affect your job and upend your entire family’s routines.
Still, even after multiple falls or illnesses, your parent may not want to move or get full-time help. When you’re calm you can talk about the fact that your work schedule and the distance between you cause you to worry. If you live in an area where blizzards or wildfires are common, you can truthfully say that you might not always be able to reach them when they need help. Enlist your team – doctors, family members and friends – to support your message and share their own concerns for your parents’ wellbeing. Sometimes the realization that you might not always be available to help right away can help a parent see the value in moving to a senior community.
Finally, if you’ve got the world’s most rugged individualist as parents and nothing you or anyone else says will change their mind, take a deep breath. Keep talking to your caregiver allies, keep the lines of communication open with your parents and pick up the conversation again when you think everyone’s ready.