It was a regrettable mistake. But Kim Sylvester thought she was doing the right thing at the time.
Her 80-year-old mother, Harriet Burkel, had fallen at her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, fractured her pelvis, and gone to a rehabilitation center to recover. It was only days after the death of Burkel’s 82-year-old husband, who’d moved into a memory care facility three years before.
With growing distress, Sylvester had watched her mother, who had emphysema and peripheral artery disease, become increasingly frail and isolated. “I would say, ‘Can I help you?’ And my mother would say, ‘No, I can do this myself. I don’t need anything. I can handle it,’” Sylvester told me.
Now, Sylvester had a chance to get some more information. She let herself into her mother’s home and went through all the paperwork she could find. “It was a shambles — completely disorganized, bills everywhere,” she said. “It was clear things were out of control.”
Sylvester sprang into action, terminating her mother’s orders for anti-aging supplements, canceling two car warranty insurance policies (Burkel wasn’t driving at that point), ending a yearlong contract for knee injections with a chiropractor, and throwing out donation requests from dozens of organizations. When her mother found out, she was furious.
“I was trying to save my mother, but I became someone she couldn’t trust — the enemy. I really messed up,” Sylvester said.
Dealing with an older parent who stubbornly resists offers of help isn’t easy. But the solution isn’t to make an older person feel like you’re steamrolling them and taking over their affairs. What’s needed instead are respect, empathy, and appreciation of the older person’s autonomy.
“It’s hard when you see an older person making poor choices and decisions. But if that person is cognitively intact, you can’t force them to do what you think they should do,” said Anne Sansevero, president of the board of directors of the Aging Life Care Association, a national organization of care managers who work with older adults and their families. “They have a right to make choices for themselves.”
That doesn’t mean adult children concerned about an older parent should step aside or agree to everything the parent proposes. Rather, a different set of skills is needed.
Cheryl Woodson, an author and retired physician based in the Chicago area, learned this firsthand when her mother — whom Woodson described as a “very powerful” woman — developed mild cognitive impairment. She started getting lost while driving and would buy things she didn’t need then give them away.
Chastising her mother wasn’t going to work. “You can’t push people like my mother or try to take control,” Woodson told me. “You don’t tell them, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ because they changed your diapers and they’ll always be your mom.”
Instead, Woodson learned to appeal to her mother’s pride in being the family matriarch. “Whenever she got upset, I’d ask her, ‘Mother, what year was it that Aunt Terri got married?’ or ‘Mother, I don’t remember how to make macaroni. How much cheese do you put in?’ And she’d forget what she was worked up about and we’d just go on from there.”
Woodson, author of “To Survive Caregiving: A Daughter’s Experience, a Doctor’s Advice,” also learned to apply a “does it really matter to safety or health?” standard to her mother’s behavior. It helped Woodson let go of her sometimes unreasonable expectations. One example she related: “My mother used to shake hot sauce on pancakes. It would drive my brother nuts, but she was eating, and that was good.”
“You don’t want to rub their nose into their incapacity,” said Woodson, whose mother died in 2003.
Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, sounded similar themes in describing a psychiatrist in his late 70s who didn’t like to bend to authority. After his wife died, the older man stopped shaving and changing his clothes regularly. Though he had diabetes, he didn’t want to see a physician and instead prescribed medicine for himself. Even after several strokes compromised his vision, he insisted on driving.
Jacobs’ take: “You don’t want to go toe-to-toe with someone like this, because you will lose. They’re almost daring you to tell them what to do so they can show you they won’t follow your advice.”
What’s the alternative? “I would employ empathy and appeal to this person’s pride as a basis for handling adversity or change,” Jacobs said. “I might say something along the lines of, ‘I know you don’t want to stop driving and that this will be very painful for you. But I know you have faced difficult, painful changes before and you’ll find your way through this.’”
“You’re appealing to their ideal self rather than treating them as if they don’t have the right to make their own decisions anymore,” he explained. In the older psychiatrist’s case, conflict with his four children was constant, but he eventually stopped driving.
Another strategy that can be useful: “Show up, but do it in a way that’s face-saving,” Jacobs said. Instead of asking your father if you can check in on him, “Go to his house and say, ‘The kids really wanted to see you. I hope you don’t mind.’ Or, ‘We made too much food. I hope you don’t mind my bringing it over.’ Or, ‘I wanted to stop by. I hope you can give me some advice about this issue that’s on my mind.’”
This psychiatrist didn’t have any cognitive problems, though he wasn’t as sharp as he used to be. But encroaching cognitive impairment often colors difficult family interactions.
If you think this might be a factor with your parent, instead of trying to persuade them to accept more help at home, try to get them medically evaluated, said Leslie Kernisan, author of “When Your Aging Parent Needs Help: A Geriatrician’s Step-by-Step Guide to Memory Loss, Resistance, Safety Worries, and More.”
“Decreased brain function can affect an older adult’s insight and judgment and ability to understand the risks of certain actions or situations, while also making people suspicious and defensive,” she noted.
This doesn’t mean you should give up on talking to an older parent with mild cognitive impairment or early-stage dementia, however. “You always want to give the older adult a chance to weigh in and talk about what’s important to them and their feelings and concerns,” Kernisan said.
“If you frame your suggestions as a way of helping your parent achieve a goal they’ve said was important, they tend to be much more receptive to it,” she said.
A turning point for Sylvester and her mother came when the older woman, who developed dementia, went to a nursing home at the end of 2021. Her mother, who at first didn’t realize the move was permanent, was furious, and Sylvester waited two months before visiting. When she finally walked into Burkel’s room, bearing a Valentine’s Day wreath, Burkel hugged her and said, “I’m so glad to see you,” before pulling away. “But I’m so mad at my other daughter.”
Sylvester, who doesn’t have a sister, responded, “I know, Mom. She meant well, but she didn’t handle things properly.” She learned the value of what she calls a “therapeutic fiblet” from Kernisan, who ran a family caregiver group Sylvester attended between 2019 and 2021.
After that visit, Sylvester saw her mother often, and all was well between the two women up until Burkel’s death. “If something was upsetting my mother, I would just go, ‘Interesting,’ or, ‘That’s a thought.’ You have to give yourself time to remember this is not the person you used to know and create the person you need to be your parent, who’s changed so much.”
Judith Graham is a contributing columnist for KFF Health News.