You care about your aging parent so much and for some reason, they're just not listening to you and your pleas for them to go to the doctor. You try and you try, but nothing you say is convincing your parent that whatever is going on in their body is worth checking out. So, here are...
5 Tips for what to do if your parent is refusing to see the doctor!
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1. Consider changing your approach.
If you’re really worried about your aging parent, you might have the tendency to be demanding or a little bit pushy. Perhaps back off a bit and share your concerns from another angle. Instead of saying “dad, you HAVE to go to the doctor, the swelling in your leg has gotten out of hand”, try having a pleasant conversation then sharing, “dad, I notice that the swelling in your leg is getting worse and it concerns me because it could be a sign of something medically wrong and I think we should check it out.”
If he stammers and says “I don’t want to put you out”, respond by reassuring him with, “I’m happy to do this with you, we can go to the doctor and then go to lunch. It’ll be a way for us to spend time together.”
Let’s stop for a minute. I get that you're probably NOT HAPPY about this. But in my years of working with older adults and families, I can confidently say that many older adults are afraid of being a burden on their families and society.
The more you can tell your parent that you'd enjoy the time together and that it's important to you to be in their life and help at times like this, the easier it'll be to get your parent out of the house and into the doctor.
This approach works best if it’s sincere. I hear you wondering, “Are you saying that I have to cancel my day at work, reschedule meetings, push back deadlines, find someone to run my kids around, making my life utter chaos, and then smile and act all loving when I pick up my dad?” Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. It sucks, but it’s what I am saying.
2. Try to see where your parent is coming from.
If changing your approach doesn’t work and your parent is still refusing, ask gentle and loving questions to see where they're coming from. Like, “Tell me what’s going on that makes you not want to go to the doctor.” Then hear them out.
Your parent might say things like: “my doctor doesn’t listen to me”… “I don’t agree with what my doctor says”… “all they’re gonna do is give me medicine; I’m already on too many medications”… “They’re too young”… “They don’t understand me”… “the doctor tells me ‘well of course you’re in pain, you’re old"
If your parent is saying any of these things, this could be their way of telling you that there are some cultural barriers or missteps happening with their doctor -like some ageism.
Ageism is discrimination based on age, and in the medical field this often shows up as: “of course you have THAT problem, you’re old, what do you expect?”
As you can imagine, this approach is NOT helpful and is actually hurtful toward older adults. This may be a sign that your parent needs a doctor who understands older adults. If this is the case, I'd encourage you to offer to help your parent find a new doctor- one that specializes in older adults - called a Geriatrician.
3. Ask if your parent would be willing to go with another family member or a friend.
If your parent doesn’t want to go with you to the doctor (Tip 1) and doesn’t want to find a new doctor (Tip 2), ask if they'd be willing to go with another family member, or friend, to the doctor. If your parent agrees to this, don’t stop there. Ask them to name the person they're willing to go with. Then, ask if they'd be willing to call that person now and see if they can help. If you're around, call that person together. Let your parent speak first, then ask if you can share your thoughts.
It can sting a little bit, if your parent ISN’T willing to go with you, but IS willing to go with somebody else. Sometimes it might take a few people to share their concerns before your parent takes a medical problem seriously. Sometimes it can help for someone closer to your parent's own age to share their own experience and encourage your them.
Whatever the case may be, the important piece to hold onto here, is that your parent IS gonna go to the doctor. Take this as an opportunity to expand your parent's care network. This could actually be a win-win. You might not have to help with everything after all.
4. Ask another family member or friend to reach out to your parent.
Still refusing? Try asking another family member or friend to reach out to your parent to express concern about the medical problem, encourage them to go to the doctor, and ask if they'd offer to take your parent to the doctor. If your parent is living in a senior community, there may be on-site nurses who can check in on them. You might call the front office and see if there is a nurse on site there who’d be willing to pay your parent a visit.
5. Take a break and give your parent some space.
If you've tried all of these strategies, and your parent is still not willing to go, you may have to take a break and give them some space. After all, most older adults are capable of making their own decisions about medical care and can decide when and how they wish to go to the doctor. This may be one of the hardest things to do - to sit back and watch your parent struggle. It’s really difficult to be powerless and have no control over the actions of somebody you love who is suffering. Especially when, from the outside, it looks like there's a very simple solution- just go to the doctor!
You might be frustrated and angry, but don’t shut your parent out. Aging and becoming sick are REALLY scary things for older adults. Many older adults wonder, “is this gonna be the illness that takes me out? Are they gonna find cancer? A lot of my friends are dying, am I gonna be next? They might find something bad, and then what?”
If you do take a step back and give your parent some space, don’t throw up your hands and ignore them. Continue to call, visit, and stay engaged. The better the relationship, the more likely your parent is to heed your advice to you down the road.
In some extreme cases, if your aging parent is very sick and refusing to go to the doctor, it might be necessary to call 911 or take them to the ER. If you do call 911 and the ambulance drivers say that they can’t take your parent to the ER because they're refusing, you might find yourself in a real bind. If you’re worried about your parent's safety or severe self-neglect, you may consider calling Adult Protective Services (APS) in the county where your parent lives to get a third party / case manager involved. They’ll go out to the home and assess the situation.
Situations like these are really tough, it’s important that in the midst of all this chaos that you find some time to care for yourself.
You’re not alone. I’m here to help. I'll walk you through the most complicated situations with your aging parents so you have peace of mind knowing that you did everything you could to help your parent live their best life, without giving up your own life in the process.
Lots of love to you and your family,
Dr. Regina Koepp
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I'm Dr. Regina Koepp!
I'm a Stanford trained, Board Certified Clinical Psychologist specializing with older adults and families! I'm an Assistant Professor at Emory University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and a staff Psychologist working with older adults and families at the Atlanta VA Health Care System. I'm a mom of two little kids and a daughter to aging parents.
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My show walks you through the most complicated situations with your aging parents, like with illness, dementia, mental health concerns and end of life... so that you have peace of mind knowing that you're doing everything you can to help your parents live their best lives... without giving up your own life in the process!
Lots of love to you and your family!
- Dr. Regina Koepp
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