We value independence so much in our life and then at exactly the age we need help, we deny it. I understand. The joy I see on my granddaughter’s face as she takes her first steps is the definition of independence. I vividly remember getting the keys to my first car and the pride I felt venturing out into the world on my own. It’s the same feelings I had when I was dropped off at college. It was all about branching out and learning new things.
Each of these experiences required the assistance of others. For the most part, they included our parents who mentored, consoled, encouraged and helped us on our way. Throughout life we are supported by others: family, teachers, peers, co-workers, bosses, clergy.
Depending on the situation help is welcomed as we move through a new situation. I fondly remember the offer of assistance after the birth of my children by my mother and mother in law. There was nothing wrong with me (other than lack of sleep) that prevented me from caring for my infant. However, their expertise and helping hands were greatly appreciated.
Fast forward this scenario and flip the recipients. The older adult is asked to accept assistance from their children – a situation often fraught with denial and refusal.
A couple of years ago, I went to see my mother in Ohio after she was diagnosed with pneumonia. The same woman who nurtured me and assisted me physically and emotionally throughout my life. However, a helping hand from me was the last thing she wanted. Eventually, I figured out surreptitious ways to assist her, so she didn’t think I was supporting her.
Help is a bad word. My mother continually told me she could do things herself and that she didn’t need my assistance.
As a social worker, I’ve come to believe that we would all do better if we accepted help from others from time to time. But what can we do to help a parent that won’t accept needed assistance? Here are a few strategies that you might consider when trying to help a recalcitrated loved on overcoming their objections for help.
Start Early and Be Patient
It’s always best for families to have relaxed conversations long before a health crisis. Look for opportunities to ask questions such as, “Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?” or “What is your Plan B if you find you need to move or require more help?”
Probe Deeply and Offer Options
Ask questions to determine why an elder refuses help — then you can tailor a solution. Is the refusal for assistance based on 1). Lack of privacy; 2). Fears about costs; 3). Losing independence, or 4). Having a stranger in the house. Listen with empathy and validate rather than deny your loved one’s feelings. Point out that having some help can also mean a prepared hot meal for the day, a companion for a walk or an extra pair of ears when going to the doctor.
Recruit Outsiders Early and Take it Slow
Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a professional rather than a family member. Don’t hesitate to ask a social worker, a doctor or nurse, a priest or minister to suggest options for help. And rather than trying to fix everything all at once, set priorities and gradually ease into providing support. Have support meet them for coffee. Visit their home for a short visit. Come along to a doctor’s appointment a few times.
Accept Their Limits
As long as an older adult is not endangering themselves or others, let them make their choices. Adult children need to accept limits on what can be accomplished and not feel guilty. And while it may sound unfeeling, maybe going a day or two without a healthy hot meal is just the reality check an older adult needs to welcome a helping hand.
Finally, scientific research indicates that offering help to others releases good chemicals in our brain. So we all need to do more for one another. In the meantime, the next time you offer help to your parents or an older adult; suggest that what they are doing is helping your brain remain healthy. We will all get further along in our lives if we continue to help each other!