How to Get Your Loved One to Do What You Want

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Few situations in family caregiving are as frustrating as slamming into resistance from your loved one. Whether he or she needs to take a bath, visit the doctor, make a decision, or do some everyday task that will improve mood or health, you know you can't use brute force. Instead, you seem to wind up begging -- or quarreling.

"A natural push-pull situation is set up when you want someone to do something -- but the more you push, the more they pull," says geriatric psychiatrist Ken Robbins of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What's a better way to get someone to do what you want? Try these five ideas:

1. Employ a secret weapon in gaining consensus: empathy.

Step away from marshaling facts and arguments, wheedling and pleading, or falling into a yes-no, black-white ping-pong match. You'll each paint yourself into a corner before you know it, unable to back down or get out. When you instead begin by acknowledging what's being felt by the other person, you're halfway to agreement already.

Being empathetic defuses negativity. It underscores that your loved one's feelings come first. Sometimes people need to express their fear and anxiety before they can "hear" the facts. And most older adults want to retain a sense of autonomy and control -- they want to be sure that their perspective is understood, because it's central to choices concerning them.

2. Ask questions rather than issuing commands.

Even kindly phrased commands can sound like orders to another's ears. And then you're back to a tug-of-war. So instead of telling your loved one what to do, ask his or her opinion. This may go against the grain if there's really not any question in your mind about what needs doing (taking a bath, for example!). But investing a few moments to be considerate, not condescending, will earn cooperation and, more likely, agreement.

Also, look for a creative way to involve the other party in the decision at hand. For example, you might say, "Jane's going to stop by today. How would you like to look when she does? Do you want a bath and then for me to fix your hair?" Or, "Which matters more to you, A or B?"

3. Appeal to a third party -- even if it's only in theory.

Your loved one might not care to do something in order to please you -- but often there's another motivating person out there you can invoke to help build your case. "Think of someone the person respects, someone the person wouldn't want to disappoint, who's not there every day," says Robbins.

Examples: a doctor, a religious figure, a sibling, an old boss, a former teacher. The person doesn't have to be present, but his or her influence can affect the situation at hand. For example: "I think it's fine if you don't shower every day. But when we go to the doctor's, he might think that I'm not taking very good care of you."

This approach, done respectfully, can work with anyone. But if your loved one has mild cognitive issues, invoking a meaningful figure from the past can be a particularly powerful motivator.

4. Break the task into manageable parts.

You'll get more cooperation if you're seeking something down-to-earth rather than asking for the moon. Avoid saying something like, "Mom! Look at this place! We've got to sort through all your stuff and get rid of half of it." Better: "Can you help me tidy this shelf? I don't know which of your books and papers should go here and which we could put in organizer folders."

5. Save commands for emergencies only.

It's said that toddlers learn to tune out the word "No!" when they hear it all day long; it simply loses its power. The same is true for all of us. That's not to say you should never use commands. Sometimes the only way to get someone to do something is by taking a firm and insistent stance. But it only works if you use the approach sparingly, Robbins says.

When you're trying to get someone to take medicine, fasten a seat belt, or not get behind the wheel of a car when it's too dangerous, it's fair to draw a line in the sand: "I'm not taking you to the barber unless you fasten your seat belt." "I'm not serving dessert until you take your pills."

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio