When Aging Parents and Their Children Disagree About Care

There’s a certain order to the universe that we expect in our lives. For most of us, that order includes looking to our parents for support and wisdom, even as adults. 

At some point, that order start to change. As our parents age, their ability to care for themselves diminishes. This change is hard for everyone involved. It’s made harder by clashing opinions on how to handle the growing need for elder care. If you find yourself in this situation, you are not alone. 

Common Arguments About Care

Elders and their children argue about a range of issues regarding how well a parent is functioning and what kind of help they need. Families often find they have the same arguments over and over again.

  • Whether a parent needs help with house cleaning.
  • Whether a parent should continue driving.
  • Disagreements over who should handle finances.
  • If parents can continue to safely use the stove.
  • If parents are healthy enough to do physical chores such as yard work.
  • Giving permission for children to speak with their parent’s doctors.
  • Moving a parent closer to family or to a care facility.

These arguments can be exhausting. Sometimes, emotions run so high, arguing takes over the relationship. Elders will decry their children’s efforts to try to “control” them. Children will cry in frustration over their parent’s stubbornness. 

It’s important to take a step back and try to understand the other person’s perspective.

Understanding Each Other’s Perspective

There are two opposing needs in play when families argue about elder care. On the one hand, most elders want to maintain their independence. On the other, adult children worry about their parents’ safety. This basic conflict leads to all kinds of arguments.

It can help to openly acknowledge the competing needs. Neither party is wrong for wanting what they want. Of coursea parent that has been running the show for decades wants to maintain their independence. Of course a child doesn’t want to see their parent hurt. 

Simply validating someone’s feelings can go a long way towards finding a solution together. Don’t know what to say? Try these:

  • “I hear what you’re saying.”
  • “I’m trying to understand. Do you mean……….?”
  • “I never thought of it that way before.”
  • “I know you worry about x. This is what worries me.”

In the heat of the moment, you may find that being able to take another’s perspective is difficult. You can always raise the subject in a calmer moment. 

When You Think Your Parent Needs More Help

Adult children naturally start picking up the reins wherever their parents need help. 

It’s no big deal to pick up prescriptions or some groceries. You might think nothing of taking over some of the yard work. You might start helping with paying the bills.

Then you start to notice that your mother hasn’t changed her clothes for two or three days. The house is becoming dirty. Your dad is forgetting to take his medicine. You’re worried and not sure what to do.

How do you determine whether your parent needs help? How do you know what kind of help they need? Figuring it out on your own can be confusing and lead to more family arguments.

Luckily, health professionals have come up with ways to identify where and when an elder needs help. 

Criteria for Determining What Kinds of Care Your Parent Needs

There are two common sets of criteria that health professionals use to discuss elder care needs. One is called Activities of Daily Living, or ADL. These include:

  • getting dressed
  • bathing and personal hygiene
  • transferring in and out of bed
  • toileting
  • being able to control bowels and urination
  • ability to feed oneself

Instrumental activities of daily living, or IADLs, are another gauge. 

These include:

  • household chores such cleaning and vacuuming
  • cooking and preparing meals
  • being able to make and receive telephone calls
  • being able to travel outside of the home
  • socializing and maintaining relationships
  • managing finances and paying the bills

Looking at ADLs and IADLs can help elders and their adult children have a more objective discussion of care needs.

Your parent’s doctor can guide this discussion. They will consider your parent’s overall health and their risk for falling. Before making recommendations, the doctor may order an in-home assessment conducted by a nurse or other health professional. 

Researching Options for Care

Once you have assessed your elder’s needs, be prepared to spend time researching their options for care. There are lots of people who can help, but you need to learn the lay of the land, so to speak. Here are a few of the people you want to become familiar with if you are involved in an elder’s care.

Primary Care Physician

Your parent’s PCP should be a point person for navigating care options. They will be able to provide you with referrals to agencies and services. Some PCP’s have a person on staff who acts as a care manager for elderly patients. There may also be a social worker on staff, should you need it.

Local Senior Center or Council on Aging

These local centers offer a variety of services. Services offered include medical escort drivers, counseling on health insurance policies, transportation to local shopping, and social activities. Senior centers also offer referrals to local care agencies.

Home Care Agencies

Between the PCP and the senior center, you will find at least one or two local agencies that offer in-home care for elders. Home care can include food preparation, grocery shopping, housecleaning, laundry, and companionship. Many agencies are subsidized by the government and work on a sliding scale. There are also private agencies that have higher fees.

In-home Nursing Care Agencies

In-home, or visiting, nurse care is usually initiated by a doctor. It can include ongoing care for medical issues, medication management and follow-up care for acute health care needs. In-home nursing agencies also offer physical or occupational therapy if prescribed by a doctor. In-home nursing or therapy is usually covered by insurance.

Navigating elder care issues is difficult for every family. You don’t have to face it alone, though. Reach out to the right people for guidance and services that can help.


For more information on managing elder care, check out the following resources:





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