Dear Carol: My parents, who are in their mid-70s, are fortunate to be reasonably healthy for their age. I’m happy to see them this way, of course, but their health is pure luck. They don’t eat right and they get virtually no exercise.
I nag them to change their lifestyle so they stay healthy, but they tell me they’ve earned the right to relax. They think that my emphasis for myself on diet and regular running is excessive, anyway. How can I motivate them? I know that nagging and scolding aren’t good, but their attitude infuriates me. Should I just ignore them and pretend that their laziness doesn’t bother me? — KO.
Dear KO: I think that your heart is in the right place and your concern is understandable, but your heavy approach is off track.
Your parents likely know all about what they should do to preserve their health: exercise; eat right; get enough sleep. These are things that you can remind them of if you approach them with respect and understanding, but first, you will likely have to step back and mend some fences. Some recognition of the fact that while you are well-meaning, you've likely been over-reaching, could go a long way.
Once you are communicating more effectively, you can ask them about their goals and priorities as they age. Listen to what they tell you. There may be issues that they didn’t mention to you before that are making it difficult for them to take better care of themselves. A softer approach may help you understand what these are and then you can offer suggestions and encouragement rather than directives.
You might be surprised to learn that they think that you want them to "work out" and completely change their eating habits when taking regular walks and eating more vegetables are realistic changes that they could be encouraged make. Jon Ulven, chair of the psychology department at Sanford Health, suggests that, in situations like this, it’s more effective to be “curious rather than furious.”
“When we are curious, we ask questions in a way that elicits more genuine responses. When we are furious, or likely just frustrated, we tend to lecture and more harshly question, and this often leads to arguments and defensiveness,” Ulven says.
His words correlate with one of my constants, which is to remind people that if they approach their parents as a concerned partner who wants to help rather than trying to be their “boss,” the adult child is bound to get more cooperation. Given human nature, in addition to the fact that our parents are adults, this shouldn’t be hard to understand.
If you move forward gently and with respect, you might see them become more willing to experiment with positive lifestyle changes. I hope that you can motivate your parents to improve their approach to staying healthy, KO, but even if you can’t, remember that your relationship with them isn’t worth sacrificing just so you can be proven right.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.