Dear Carol: I moved my 81-year-old dad in with me so that I could keep an eye on him after he had a stroke last year and have kept him with me because of COVID-19. He’s doing very well, partly because he has some in-home physical therapy where he happily cooperates. When we had some general in-home help for a while after his stroke, he also did everything they asked, including eating the food that they suggested. When I insist on the same things, he shrugs me off or says that he’ll think about it. I love him and we get along quite well. Why will he do what he needs to do for other people and not me? — KT.
Dear KT: This is a frustrating situation that many adult children deal with as caregivers. While everyone is different, I can think of several possible reasons.
First, many older adults have a history of doing what the doctor says and that feeling carries over with other people who represent health care.
Another consideration is that many older adults, consciously or subconsciously, don’t want to be told what to do by their kids. It doesn’t seem to matter if this kid is 50 years old. They are the parent and they don’t like the role reversal.
Related to the second is the fact that many older adults feel that they are losing control of their lives due to age-related health issues. Having their adult children, no matter how well-intentioned, decide that what they should and shouldn’t do just reminds them that the kids are eventually going to take over managing their lives.
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While it may seem unfair to put this back on you, in the interest of making your situation with your dad work more smoothly, try retooling your approach to him.
When was the last time you and your dad have had a non-health-related conversation? When did you last ask him about the work he did or his past interests? Have you asked him recently how he wants to live his life now that he’s facing some health challenges? In other words, if you can express interest in the life that he’s lived, he may feel you are interested in him as a person rather than a project.
During these conversations, look for natural openings to ask what he values in his life now and how he sees his future. If it’s independence, you can gently offer up that you understand that doing rehab exercises is boring but doing them could help him stay more independent. Then, leave it alone. Most of us are more willing to comply with steps that are in our best interest if we feel that we have some control over how we go about it, so give him time to make his own decisions. We really can’t “make” someone else change.
If he still won’t do what is, in your mind, in his best interest, then love him anyway. Respecting his autonomy will pay off in other ways.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.