Motivating Our Aging Parents


Many years ago at Teachers College, I had one of those outstanding professors, the ones we never forget. For a semester, as aspiring counselors, we studied the techniques of counseling with him.

We understood active listening; we’d learned to be objective and aware of our biases. We’d immersed ourselves in Carl Rogers. We studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs etc.  We’d passed our tests. We learned how to be effective counselors. We were ready to spend a semester putting into practice all we had learned.

We entered Dr. Pat’s classroom the last week of the term. A short list of counseling “Don’ts” was on the board (see above). He thus provided us a practical list and discussed the importance of each “don’t.” I remember these “don’ts” as if it were yesterday. There was another listed–“don’t use guilt.” Remembering what not to do became normal in my counseling….and ultimately in my every day conversations with others.

After reviewing the list and its applicability to our future counseling jobs, Dr. Pat did an about-face, saying something like: When it’s your own family, you’ll forget these “don’ts.” Instinctively you will react emotionally because it’s your family–that’s what happens when you’re emotionally involved. You’ll do whatever you instinctively want to do (eg. threaten to take away the car keys if they won’t take the AARP driver safety refresher?).

Is this a reason we get frustrated and find it thankless dealing with unmotivated parents? Do we say things the wrong way? Being aware of our emotional reactions is a first step in changing the dynamics and outcomes. Dr. Pat’s “don’ts” are on target for conversations with parents. Learning to say things the right way makes a difference. Granted. We know that.  But stuff gets in the way. It’s not always easy to remember when emotions enter into it –can we remember that?

I’m also thinking about our highly respected psychiatrist’s, Dr. Bud’s, guidance to empower the can-do mechanism in aging parents. Empowering motivates. He focuses on the do’s.

Nevertheless, there are some roadblocks we need to be aware of. Here are 4 that can undermine the best of intentions:

1.The pressure of time and fast-forward life. We get impatient. We’ve learned to multi-task–to get things done. Helping older people find motivation and the will to do isn’t instantaneous–I think we know that, but do we act on that knowledge?

2. Our relationship (eg. loving, caring, tolerated, respectful, resentful)–which includes personalities–has bearing on how we communicate: the words we choose, the tone of voice we use.

3. Current finances/future inheritance can enter into the equation causing us to think about what’s best for us instead of what serves aging parents best

4. Other interested parties’ (siblings, spouses) influence.

When we can motivate aging parents to do things that are in their best interest–and learn to say things the right way (even better if we can learn how to say things in such a way that parents think it’s their idea), we help them move forward. And isn’t this another way to help parents age well.

2 thoughts on “Motivating Our Aging Parents

  1. I thought this was a really insightful article. I’ve been dreading the day we have to start trying to convince my dad to shift from at-home care to an institution. Thankfully, we’re still a couple of years away from that conversation. When the times comes, I’ll be sure to remember your advice. Great blog! Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Christian. I’m particularly grateful that I’ve had so many insightful professionals in my life over the years. Wishing you the best with your dad.

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