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The Difficult Conversations: Talking to Elderly Parents in Denial

We previously shared our advice on timing for talking to elderly parents about difficult topics. But, no matter when you talk about things, some elderly parents just don’t want to hear what you have to say. What do you do when talking to elderly parents leads nowhere? What can you do if Dad simply says, “I’m fine. Leave me alone.”?

talking to elderly parents who don't want to listen

Talking to Elderly Parents Who Say There’s Nothing to Talk About

  • You may not get anywhere today, but don’t give up. Sometimes it is best to leave the subject alone if it’s not a crisis and return to it later. We always advise that talking to elderly parents is a process, not a one-time chat. This is especially true for parents who don’t think anything is wrong.
  • Come prepared. Speak about what you’ve observed and be honest about your worries. Do some homework so you know some options.
  • Explain that the idea is to prevent consequences your parent does not want. Doing nothing is a choice, with repercussions. A person who gets a little help at home may avoid an early move to the nursing home. A regular checkup could catch something before it becomes debilitating.
  • Gather allies. Talk to siblings ahead of time, and try to get on the same page. If the concerns primarily revolve around one parent, does your other parent/the spouse agree? Don’t go into the conversation ignoring key influencers. They can quickly undermine the situation (or be your ally). A third party can be useful especially if you aren’t getting anywhere. A pastor, your parent’s trusted doctor, or a geriatric care manager can help lead or mediate the conversations.
  • Use stories or examples with positive outcomes. Take the chance to talk about your own planning or what’s been happening with a neighbor or friend.
  • Try to figure out what your parent fears or what motivates them.
  • Don’t let “windows of opportunity” pass by. Temporary help after a hospitalization or illness can give your parent a chance to get used to the situation. Denial can be a useful defense mechanism as we face loss, so the way we word or approach things can help ease the pain of loss.
  • Get our free download, “Help, Mom Won’t Listen to Me!” for more tips.

But, what happens when I’ve tried everything and they just won’t listen?

You can gently, but firmly set your own boundaries. If your parent refuses to do anything, it can be you facing the consequences and dealing with the crisis. Explain what you can and cannot (and will not) do. Offer them options, but try to avoid swooping in to save the day if they refuse help.

We know this is VERY difficult advice to practice. It can be very useful in such situations to talk to a geriatric care manager or counselor. We’ve worked with caregivers who later told us this was the biggest lifesaver for them. You may need emotional support in order to do this and deal with all your feelings about it. Siblings and other parties involved may also make you feel extremely guilty.

You may need to have your parent evaluated if memory or cognitive issues are at play. Adults do have the right to make poor decisions, but there may be a question of competency, undue influence or self-neglect. If the person is endangered, the situation may result in a call to DCF and/or guardianship proceedings.

We truly understand how tough it can be talking to elderly parents. Especially when they don’t want to hear it! Fortunately, we’ve had experience working with thousands of families dealing with many issues and personalities. Contact us anytime to discuss your concerns and find out how we can help.

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