Helping Aging Parents: From Resistance to “On Board”

Four Words That Can Change Resistance to Compliance

“I need your help.” These four words are powerful. They can do more to help aging parents do what’s best and what’s right than any other phrase I know. A counseling colleague suggested this phrase to me when I had a particularly difficult situation to untangle. I have used it successfully in my counseling with temporarily irrational parents, difficult kids, and seemingly inflexible teachers and administrators.

And I’ve used it with strangers–to untangle airline reservations, to speak with a supervisor when all else was failing, and with family and friends– when appropriate. I use this phrase only when I do need help. It has never disappointed.

“Why?” you ask. “And where does helping aging parents fit in?

When you say “I need your help,” to someone, the implied message is that the person you’re speaking to is capable. That’s flattering. People rarely turn down that simple request. (Contrast that with “can you help me?” Notice how it allows for refusal?)

“I need your help” also psychologically pulls the other person into your space giving him or her a vested interest in helping to resolve the problem. You’ve appealed to his or her ego (self-esteem) by admitting you need his or her help. It makes aging parents feel good and clearly not threatened, providing a nice way to begin a potentially difficult conversation. You and they become partners in solving the problem.

I don’t believe we are our parents’ parents…not until our parents ask us to take over or we know from a doctor that they are no longer capable of decision-making. Dictating to them or deciding for them creates major friction. Conversely, when adult children say “I need your help” to parents, the mere statement is respectful and affirming. It’s as applicable to the big issues, like driving or changing living arrangements, as it is to the smaller ones.  And there’s no better way I can think of to begin a thorny conversation. I stressbegin because It sets a tone for getting to the heart of a problem in as nice a way as possible.

Try beginning with “I need your help,” especially in situations that you think parents may initially reject or resist even though it’s for their own good. When we can help aging parents to buy into a solution, it’s better for everyone–and can generate worthwhile ideas no one thought of. And when an adult child begins by admitting he or she needs their help, shouldn’t the collaboration requested have a better chance for success?

PS. When life and limb are involved, if “I need your help” should fail, a parent’s physician is usually in the best position to do what’s necessary to keep parents safe.

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