Self Caring

Caregiver Frustration: When a Needy Loved One Won't Let You Help

Last updated: Jul 04, 2011

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Caregiving is all about helping those who need it -- but what happens when those who need help insist they don't want it? It's hugely frustrating to see a need resisted, let alone to have your loved one rebuff you, ignore you, or label you a worrywart or a meddler.

Living with resistance hugely amps caregiver stress. It can make you feel like you're doing the "wrong" thing even when your impulses are totally right. That's compounded by the frustration over things taking twice as long to do, or not getting done at all. Clashes can ensue, between you and your loved one, and with other family members who obliviously ask, "Why can't you make him (or her) do x?"

As if overcoming resistance were so easy.

Many caregivers encounter this help-resisting phenomenon at the beginning of the care journey -- when a loved one refuses to see a doctor for concerning symptoms, for example. How do you get a problem checked out and treated in someone who denies there's even a hint of a problem?

Other caregivers encounter a help-resister every darn day, because of the person's personality or the situation. "No, I don't need my walker." "Don't baby me -- of course I know I'm supposed to take my pills! (Now where are they? Which ones?)" "I heard you tell the doctor I fell down again; it's none of her business!"

Five strategies that can help you help a resister:

#1: Let it go. Come back to it.

We can fall deep into a power struggle without even realizing it. You say yes, I say no. You say later, I say now. You say buzz off, I say uh-oh now what? Sometimes the best answer to "buzz off" is to back off.

When your loved one digs in her heels, retreat. Insisting only escalates the tension and bad feelings. By dropping back, you give yourself the opportunity to find a fresh entry point to the stand-off.

Examples:Ask around to see how other caregivers -- friends, caregiving forum members, or support-group members -- have dealt with a similar snag. Look for a better time of day to handle a resistance-laced chore, such as bathing. Or examine your approach to see if there might be a new way that yields better results.

#2: Enlist a third party.

Trying to help when it's not wanted doesn't make you the good guy no matter how right or well intentioned you are. It makes you the bad guy. Instead of falling into an adversarial role, get a neutral third party involved.

Examples: Worried about memory symptoms? Call ahead to the doctor before your loved one's next routine visit to express your concerns in confidence and ask that they be investigated during the exam. Need to get Dad off the road? Consider having one of his friends who's quit driving initiate a conversation about his own experiences. Maybe a "Daddy's girl" who lives out of town would have more headway with certain subjects than a local hands-on caregiver who (sad to say) may be taken for granted.

#3: Empathize.

Your loved one may, without fully realizing it himself, be resentful of the roles you're in. He doesn't like being so dependent, which may make him feel bossed or babied (even if you're not bossy or mollycoddling). A little empathy can go a long way toward helping remind him that you're on the same side of things, struggling against disease rather than each other.

Examples: "These big pills must be so hard to swallow. I'm sorry you have to do this every day. Maybe you could take them at a different time so we can dish up some ice cream afterward?" Or, "You've been so brave, it's a wonder you're not cross at the whole world all the time -- I think I would be!"

#4: Crack a joke.

Humor doesn't work in every situation. But sometimes a wisecrack or light comment can brilliantly defuse tension and turn a dark reality into one so comically absurd that neither of you can help but laugh. And laughter, in turn, makes people more agreeable.

Examples: "Just think, Mom, once you switch to these new panties you'll not only stay dry and be more comfortable, but you'll be as sexy as June Allyson!" "Okay, fine Dad, you don't have to mention to the doctor the fact that we're all worried about your repeating yourself. But the next 50 times you ask us what time it is, nobody's going to answer!"

#5: Go behind the person's back.

In some situations, it's possible to provide help surreptitiously. Basically you do what needs doing and explain yourself later. Sometimes family members worry that this is disrespectful, invasive, or unfair to the person being helped. But many caregivers who have tried direct approaches and been rebuffed feel that when a loved one is at risk, "you gotta do what you gotta do."

Examples:As in the above example about enlisting a doctor's help to evaluate memory problems, you can report your concerns before the appointment (by phone or by making your own appointment) without your loved one having to know you've had this conversation. Automating bill-paying or other services are other ways of back-end helping, rather than explaining your actions up front. Your loved one may accept the explanation that "they've started a new system at the bank," for example.

Admittedly, helping is a dance between the person's pride -- and his or her welfare. How do you help someone who doesn't want it?