Don’t control aging parents; instead, work with them

“I want to control my aging parents, but I think I’m going to lose this battle.”

This quote in a recent Wall Street Journal article refers specifically to one woman’s wish that she could rein in her older parents from resuming their usual pre-COVID social life now that they’re vaccinated.  She’s worried that despite the vaccine, their many gatherings at church and with friends could still pose a risk to their safety.

But the same statement could be made by countless other adults who long to protect their aging parents from other potential dangers — driving when their eyesight and reflexes aren’t what they used to be, climbing ladders to clean out the gutter of their home, keeping and eating expired food in the fridge. These things happen. All the time.

So do lifestyle changes affecting older loved ones’ health and fitness that younger generations wish they could fix.  Refrains like “Stand up straight, mom,” “Let’s go to the gym together,” “Try walking three times a day,” and “What if you got meals delivered?” are all too common. Most often, these efforts to control parents’ behavior are met by resistance. Adults resist attempts by their children to help them stay healthy and safe because they fear help is a sign that the end of life is approaching and they’re no longer in control. An older client once told me that she saw accepting a caregiver as “the beginning of the end.”

Watching a parent who was once strong, upright, and clear-thinking diminish is painful and sad. And trying to get the parent to not decline, and to stay clear of dangers, is a normal response.  But when is—or isn’t— it the right thing to do

From my 40 years of experience as a care manager to older adults, I’ve come to believe that it’s best for adult children to give up any thought of controlling their aging parents, even if this means allowing them to make bad decisions. Trying to control them will prove as futile as telling kids what to do over and over again.  Instead, my advice is to work with them to help them feel more comfortable with assistance, whether from loved ones or a professional caregiver.

Navigating this process takes patience and skill.  Here are a few steps you can take to make it go more smoothly:

Get involved early in the game.

While I was assessing an older woman on her daughter’s request, the woman said to me, “My daughter thinks I am dying, doesn’t she?” The daughter hadn’t visited in three years. Her sudden involvement was a red flag. To some, this can feel like a death knell. If you’re involved on a regular basis over the years, your presence and support won’t be alarming, and your parent will be more inclined to cooperate.

Spend extended periods of time with your parent.

The 72-hour visit concept laid out by Dr. Dennis McCullough in his book “My Mother, Your Mother” is very effective. The goal is to spend time with the parent over an extended period of time. No judgment, no convincing them to do anything; just be there. You can observe, get a better sense of your parent’s capacities, and build trust.

Avoid using the tone of voice you would with a child.

It’s a surefire way to fail!

Proceed slowly.

Chances are your ideas are bigger and more complicated than what your aging parents are ready for. Ratchet down, go slow. Seek solutions that are small and build from there.

Lighten your emotional baggage. Lingering feelings of anger or frustration toward your parent will block decisionmaking and trust. Seek help from friends or professionals to work through these unresolved issues.

Build a support team.

Siblings, friends, nieces, rabbis, nurses, colleagues, attorneys, financial advisors…Who can listen and bring ideas to the table? Who will your parents trust? Ask for referrals. One good referral can lead to another.

If you need an additional layer of support in navigating this and other challenges, you might consider hiring a professional care manager. Yes, it can be expensive. But there’s always the option to pay for a few sessions and create a game plan together. A care manager can also help save money over time by helping you make better choices from the outset, avoiding costly errors.

As with the other approaches above, this will bring greater peace of mind.


Amy Cameron O’Rourke, who wrote this article, is president of The Cameron Group: Aging Life Care Services in Orlando, Fla., and author of “The Fragile Years.”