Thanks, But No Thanks: Caregiving for a Parent Who Resists Your Help

By Amy Treadwell

As my 87-year-old mom struggled to climb the stairs to my second-floor guest room on a recent weekend visit, I felt compelled to ask, “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable staying in my room downstairs?” 

“No, I’m not going to kick you out of your bedroom,” Mom responded tersely. I watched in agony as she finally managed to reach the top.  

Not long after that, Mom and my sister Debbie went to the beach for a picnic lunch on a beautiful summer day. When it was time to pack up and go, my mom, who had been sitting on the picnic blanket for at least an hour, said, “I don’t think I can get up.” Debbie watched as my mom tried to push herself up with her arms, but although she could manage to get onto her knees, she couldn’t get the leverage she needed to stand up. My sister tried to hold her hands and pull her up, but Mom was too heavy. Finally, a woman nearby came over, got down on her hands and knees, and told my mom, “Use me like a table.” Holding onto the woman’s back, Mom slowly hoisted herself up.

Clearly, Mom had lost a lot of strength in her legs since she moved from a multi-level condo with stairs to a one-level condo a few years ago. I became plagued with inner worry. What if she had been in a similar situation alone at her home? What if she tried to use a chair and it fell over on top of her? I began to look at the furniture and everything in her home in a different light.

When my sister and I tried to talk about her safety at home as directly and gently as we could, Mom was prickly. She was fine and didn’t need any help, thank you very much. She proudly showed us handy tools that helped her out: a long-handled shoe horn so she didn’t have to bend over to put on her shoes, and a “grabber” to reach clothes on high shelves. 

I told her that stuff was great, but that Debbie and I had noticed that some of the housework wasn’t being done and that the kitchen was in need of a deep clean. Those piles of giveaway clothes in her bedroom never got donated. The sliding door to her laundry closet didn’t work, and her garbage disposal was broken. 

“Mom, what would you think if Debbie and I came up for a day every week or so and tackled a particular project? I could clean the outside windows and store your patio furniture for the winter. Deb could clean out the refrigerator and organize the kitchen.” After mulling it over, my mom reluctantly told us sure, that might be helpful.

Looking back, getting Mom’s permission upfront was key to unlocking our ability to help her without feeling that we were intruding on her space. Over time we cleaned things, got rid of potentially stumbling-and-tripping-over clutter, and found her a handyman to fix the things that were broken. Once she realized we weren’t trying to take over her life, Mom changed her tune and was grateful for our help. 

Unexpected fringe benefits gradually emerged as we spent more time together. Mom started telling us her memories. During World War II, her family collected scrap metal for the war effort. When her mother (our grandmother) was young in the early 1900s, she would take the train from Boston to Cape Cod with her family (along with their crates of chickens so they could have eggs when they got there!) and spend each summer at their cottage, the same one we eventually went to every summer ourselves. She told us fascinating details about trips with my dad. In Peru, they climbed to Machu Picchu. In Costa Rica, a local family in a small village made her the best coffee of her life. In Egypt, she and my dad cruised down the Nile River and saw crocodiles (her very favorite). 

Thanks to the stronger bonds between the three of us, we now talk as a team about my mom’s future in a way that doesn’t threaten her independence. She makes her opinions known, and we listen. In response to our desire to have a plan should her health take a turn for the worse, she said, “Well, whatever happens, I do not want to go to a nursing home. That is why I have long-term care insurance that includes in-home care.” 

“That’s wonderful Mom,” I said, “This is the kind of information we need to know and understand so you can get the help you need to stay in your own home for as long as possible.” 

I have made other adjustments as well. When it came time for me to move, I prioritized finding a one-story home (like my sister had) to make it easier for mom to visit. The three of us are starting to discuss mom living permanently in one of our homes, if or when she’s ready for that next step.

Now that we have a basic future plan, when I call to check in, Mom and I are free to chat about topics beyond her health and safety. We compare notes on the latest episode of Jeopardy, plan a visit to the botanical gardens, or schedule a day trip to visit my daughter at college. I touch lightly upon my next fix-it or clean-up visit. Although I wish she would take an exercise class to strengthen her muscles, I’m resigned to the fact that it’s just not her jam. She’s living her life on her own terms and she feels good about it. And so do I.


Amy Treadwell is a freelance writer and book editor living in New Hampshire. When she’s not working, she can be found taking walks on the local rail trail near her home or in the kitchen, indulging in her obsessive love of baking.