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6 Ways to Work Around Someone Else's Denial About Needs for Assistance

Ease into a candid conversation about future care

No one really likes to think about it: What life will be like when we're old, ill and unable to care for ourselves. So it's perfectly understandable why your aging parents balk when you bring up the topic — and you try to discuss their plans for the years ahead. As far as they're concerned, everything is just fine and there's no reason to think that it won't continue that way.

See also: How to assess a loved one's situation.

Ideally, you should begin candid conversations about the future before your parent has a health crisis or he's reached the point when he's unable to participate in decisions about his plans. Broach the topic senitively with your parents, and chances are the discussion will go well. But if you're totally stonewalled — or they deny they need help now or will in the future — here are some ways you can cope:

1. Understand their point of view. Balking at your reasonable suggestions can mask the fact that your parents know exactly what's happening and are actually terrified of losing control of their lives. The person who refuses to move from his large home into a more manageable apartment because, he claims, there will be no room for his books and files is really saying that without them, he will feel as if life has passed him by.

Many older people are reluctant to burden their families with additional worries. They're pros when it comes to social pleasantries, assuring you they're "just fine" when they really aren't. The problem is, while denial may temporarily mask anxiety, it puts off and sometimes creates problems.

2. Determine exactly what's needed. Take stock of your parent's mental, physical, environmental and financial situation. Is the house clean and neat? Are bills paid on time? Are they eating well-balanced meals and taking prescribed medications? Are their clothes clean? Are they paying attention to personal hygiene? Are they socializing with friends? Consider, too, the safety of their home and community: Can they handle the stairs? Will they need to drive to get to the store, bank or visit friends?

3. Do your research. Check out AARPs comprehensive section on health and caregiving resources or call the local Area Agency on Aging, so you have a sense of what services seniors generally need, and which ones (home health aide; senior day care; food deliveries) are available in your parent's community. Talk to friends who've been in similar situations for suggestions that worked for them. Once you've compiled detailed information and multiple options to problems or concerns you'll feel more confident raising the issues, and your parents will be better able to envision their future. 

Next: Offer help, but don 't go overboard. »

4. Frame it as your problem. Make it clear that you don't want to tell them how to run their life, but you're genuinely worried about their health and well being: "I can't make decisions for you but it would make us all feel so much better if knew how you felt about these things. Can you humor me?" Talk in general about the future: "Mom, when you think about the next few years, where do you see yourself? What do you hope for — and what worries you?" Listen to what they have to say, and don't dismiss their ideas out of hand because you think you know better.

5. Go slowly. Just because your parents aren't as spry as they used to be doesn't mean they need to move to an assisted living facility ASAP. Without sounding judgmental or patronizing, calmly point out some of the things you've noticed: "Mom, Dad's really having trouble walking and I can see you're exhausted from taking care of him on top of everything else. What if I hired someone to come in every day to help you with the cleaning and laundry? Would that work for you? " She may only want help with bill paying or grocery shopping. Or perhaps some relatively inexpensive renovations — grab bars in the bathroom, widening doorways, installing wheelchair lifts or ramps — are all that's needed right now.

If you're concerned about medication mix-ups, you could say in a light-hearted tone, "Dad, you've got prescription bottles everywhere I look! Why don't I get you one of those pill organizers the next time I'm at the drug store? It will be so much easier to keep it all straight!" Check out watches with alarms that ring until the appropriate medication is taken, as well as phone apps to remind people to take their pills.

6. Bring in recruits. It's not easy to walk the fine line between empathizing with their concerns, and urging action. If you meet a lot of resistance, table the discussion and bring it up again in a few days. Ask a neutral third party — your parent's doctor, clergyman or an old friend — to join the conversation. Your parents may be more amenable to suggestions if they come from others. However, if you gang up on your parent, they may dig in deeper, or feel humiliated and ambushed. Be respectful. They have the right to refuse, and to make bad decisions. Just do whatever you can to give them your love and support.

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