What do you do with a stubborn old man who won't take care of himself?

Hilary asked...

My dad is 81 and lives alone. He has a couple come in each weekday to fix his meals, etc. But he won't lift a finger to help himself - he won't eat, or drink (except scotch), or take his medicine unless someone brings it to him. It's not that he's incapable of doing these things, he just won't. He's of a generation where women have always taken care him - first his mother, then my mom (they're divorced), then a "friend." This friend has recently moved to an assisted living facility, due to Alzheimer's. I understand he's probably feeling lost, alone, and depressed, but we're in this terrible cycle of him not eating or drinking for days, lying in his bed (often in his own waste), calling 911, spending a few days in the hospital, then rehab care, then home. He hasn't lasted two weeks out of the hospital or rehab since August. As I type this, my husband has gone to his house because he hasn't been taking care of himself today and the cycle is starting again. He's been seen by doctors, social workers, his priest, and a host of others and nothing gets through to him. He absolutely refuses to consider moving to any kind of senior living facility. I have full POA - I just keep thinking that his behaviour is a sign that I need to have him declared incompetent so he can get the care he needs. He is/was a practicing attorney and his mind is fine - he knows he can override any decision I make. I just keep thinking that the only way now is to have him declared incompetent. Of course, I'm so angry with him for not taking care of himself AND expecting me to bail him out each time. It's making me sick to my stomach, but I feel like I have to make good on my threat to not go help him again and let him live with the consequences. I have siblings, but they live out of state. What do you do with a stubborn old man who won't take care of himself?

Expert Answer

As Founder and Director of Circles of Care, Ann Cason provides caregiving, consulting, and training services to individuals and public and private organizations involved in eldercare. She is the author of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders.

Thank you for expressing so clearly the frustration that many of us caregivers feel. The priest, social worker, and other professionals have already pointed out that he is grieving, that part of him wants to die and then he wants to live.  At the last minute he panics and calls 911. He doesn't know how to live and he is afraid to die.  

I hear the same from you. You don't want to be manipulated into taking care, but it is making you a little sick leaving him to his own consequnces. 

Of course, you could hire a nurse to come to his house to care for him a few hours a day.She could give his medicine, serve his meals and rub his back. She could nurse him.

But, having him declared incompetent is coming up so strongly for you, why not try it? Trust yourself. 

Your father is an attorney. His mind is good. It is very difficult to get someone declared incompetent. But it could be a tool of communication. It might wake him up.  

You could go to your father and say, "Dad, I love you.  I'm worried that you are not getting the care that you need. I am going to exercise my power of attorney to have you delared incompetent so I can get you help. When I was a baby, you protected me. Now it is my duty to protect you."   

This communication may speak to him. It might make him angry enough to decide whether he wants to live or die. It might force him to get an attorney to protect himself. 

The process of communication might be very good for him. Also, it might reveal to you, what his real abilities are. Sometimes we can't see our parents clearly. Feel your way:   listening, observing, learning.  It is almost like a laboratory experiment with the human heart as the guide.  

Also, if you decide on this plan, you will need to include your siblings. It could include all of you in a path of healing for your dear but contrary father.