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Dignity and independence. These are two of the strongest emotions and drivers among us all.  And, they take on even more importance as we age. Looking after parents or other elderly people can at times be upsetting and difficult - especially if they resist help. As long as they're still considered of sound mind, it can seem as if there's nothing you can do but watch. Don't worry – that is not the case. Although you are limited, there are ways that you can help them even without their full cooperation. Here are some common problems, and some ways to help solve them:

Not Eating

A big issue for a lot of elderly people is a lack or loss of appetite, and they'll often stop eating – or at least, stop eating anywhere near the amount they need. There are 6 million malnourished seniors in the U.S. There are three main reasons for this. Understanding the underlying causes can help you determine the best course of action to get them to improve their nutrition without feeling pressured.

Three major reasons are:

  • Medication: Lots of medication prescribed to elderly patients has the unintended side-effect of decreasing appetite. If this is the case, you may be able to reason with them into trying an alternative medication, which may help clear up the issue.
  • Loss of taste/smell: As we age, we grow less sensitive to taste and smell. It may well be that they find it boring, and therefore have no interest. If you cook or shop for them, you can change this by using stronger tasting ingredients – garlic, spice, citrus and so on are great for making a dish more interesting. Another is to ‘mix it up’ with a selection of food choices. The CareGiver Partnership offers freshly prepared, home delivered meals - up to 70 choices.
  • Depression: It may well be a combination of loneliness, sadness or other negative emotions. The best thing you can do in this case is to increase the amount of visiting you do, and see if you can persuade them to join social groups! This is a tricky one to deal with, as the root cause is often hard to impact – plus, if they're resisting help, you may just upset them more. If in doubt, talk with a counselor yourself on ways you may be able to help out.

Not Washing

Many elderly people will stop washing – both themselves and their clothes! This can be distinctly unpleasant, as well as unhealthy. But how can you help with this if they're adamant they don't need help? As above, it's always worth noting depression could be a cause and addressing this, not just the symptom. But it's just as likely to be a lack of care or an unwillingness to invest the effort. Perhaps it's a fear of injury that they don't want to admit to.

Offering to renovate the bathroom may help, but it could also feel like an imposition. One thing we recommend is to give them reasons to clean up – such as calling them with something akin to “Hey, we're going out for lunch – want to shower and get dressed up and join us?” Having a reason to clean up may well be the push they need. If not, you may need to approach the subject gently and offer options that don't involve too much of your own involvement.

Blame Yourself – The Right Amount

There are two important things to remember about blaming yourself: firstly, that you should never do it seriously, and secondly that it can be quite an efficient method! This sounds strange, so let's clarify.

If the elderly person you want to help is resisting your help, and something goes wrong – illness, injury, etc. – it is not your fault. They're not a child, and you cannot force them to do anything. While you may want to blame yourself, try to avoid the urge. There is nothing you could have done.

However, if you're trying to encourage someone to change their ways, saying “You need to do x, because otherwise you...” can sound like an accusation. Try saying “could you do x, because I will worry/feel better knowing/etc.” This level of self-blame – placing the reasoning on your worries, rather than them, can often lead to good results as it allows them to avoid resenting your removal of their independence, whilst still stressing the importance of what needs to be done. It's a tricky line to walk, but with practice, you'll soon find it easy.

Help Yourself

Most importantly, remember you're not alone! You can't care for someone if you're all worn out, so set aside time to look after yourself. Ask advice from others – in particular, medical professionals. They may not be able to break confidentiality but they can give you general advice that may make all the difference. Good luck!

(This article by Edward Francis and originally appeared on the CareGiver Partnership blog.)


About R.O.S Therapy Systems: R.O.S. Therapy Systems began as a backyard project in 2010. Scott Silknitter was searching for tools to help his mother care for his father, Roger Owen Silknitter, during a 25-year fight with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. That project became a personal mission to help all family caregivers. From family caregiver training and activity books to mobile apps to activity systems, R.O.S. has grown to become a single-source provider of informational “how to’s” and a growing provider of adaptive tools for the millions of husbands, wives, children, and family members that become caregivers.

Common sense advice and instruction based on proven principles of communication, engagement, and daily living are the heart of everything R.O.S. offers for family caregivers. Improving quality of life for caregivers is our mission, and designing everything for a family caregiver struggling with a loved one is the starting point. Whether it is dementia, diabetes, Parkinson’s, ALS, stroke, visual impairment, developmental disabilities, or any other issue that forces someone to care for a loved one, R.O.S. and its Caregiving 101 program are here to help.