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What To Do When Your Elderly Parent Refuses Medical Treatment

Discover the best ways to speak to a loved one about medical treatment. Seniorly can explore different ways to help them reconsider assistance.

By Lydia Bruno · Updated Apr 15, 2022

When it comes to the health of your parents, you may feel like you have no choice but to respect their decisions. But what if they refuse medical treatment that could save their lives? Being one of the family caregivers of a sick parent can make this a tough question, but one that many people find themselves asking when caring for aging parents. Whether or not you decide to force them into receiving medical care is entirely up to your family and their values. That being said, there are some steps that can be taken in order to make sure everyone involved feels respected throughout this process.

Can you force your loved one to see a doctor?

A short and simple answer is no. You can not force someone who is of sound mind to do anything. If someone is of sound mind and not under anyone else's care then they have the right to refuse help and treatment.

Being too forceful may put a divide in your relationship with your parents. The more you push someone to do something against their will the more push back you will receive. This could also make it difficult for your loved one to trust you in the future. Even though it is hard to accept at times, people have the right to make their own decisions even when you have their best interests at heart.  

10 tips for when your aging parent refuses medical treatment

Try to understand their reasons for refusing treatment. Is it because they don't want more medication? Do they feel like their quality of life will suffer if the medical issue is fixed? Are there religious or cultural beliefs that prevent them from seeking medical attention? Understanding why your parent doesn't want help can make this process a lot easier on everyone. Here are some tips to help guide you to make this process a little easier. 

Respect their choices. If your parent is refusing medical treatment due to religious or cultural beliefs, it's important for you and the rest of your family to make sure they are not being pressured into a decision that goes against their core values. In these circumstances, it may be best if everyone involved respects their choice in order to avoid conflict within the family.

Keep the lines of communication open. Talk to your parent and be clear about what their preferences are for medical care, including any palliative or hospice treatments they would want. Ask them if there is a certain caregiver or family member they trust most who could help make these decisions on their behalf when necessary.

Respect their autonomy. It is hard for us as adult children to watch our parents be contrary and have a stubborn parent make decisions we don’t agree with. Our jobs as their children is to stand by their decisions while guiding them in the right direction. Your loved one may feel that giving in will lead to a loss of independence.

Be upfront and honest with your loved one. Even though you may feel that your loved one will benefit from receiving care, they may be facing fear or just plain denial. If your loved one has a mental health condition, a cognitive decline condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, or heart disease, be very honest about your options. It may not be a favorable care option to your loved one, but assisted living may be the best recommendation for them. Without pressuring the elderly person in your life, express your concerns while keeping an open mind. Let them know how much you love and support them and that you only want  the best way forward for them in the long run.

Communicate sooner than later. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen before you understand your loved one’s wishes. Write down any treatment preferences your parents might have before it becomes too late to discuss them with their healthcare team. If your loved one doesn't have a geriatric team this might be the time to obtain one. Getting geriatric care from a geriatrician can help you figure out what care services are available for your parent’s needs and medical conditions. This is in case they are unable to communicate with you verbally when the time comes.

Have paperwork prepared. If you are the legal proxy for your aging parent, make sure you have all necessary paperwork in place before there is a crisis; including an advance directive or healthcare power of attorney form that specifies who should make medical decisions on behalf of your loved one if they are no longer able to do so themselves. If they do not then ask them to update the paperwork so that everyone involved knows what their wishes are for medical treatment when they are no longer able to make their own decisions.

Consider all options. There is always more than one way to approach a health problem. If your loved one is worried about cost, help them by looking into other insurance options such as Medicare and Medicaid. If your loved one is afraid of change and seeing different healthcare providers then get their primary care physician and other health professionals involved. Have their trusted doctors suggest going to see a specialist or other doctor to help with their health issues. By providing suggestions to their objections you can help them to make the most informed decisions.

Avoid arguments about care. While your parents' care is of the utmost importance, it is a good idea to avoid arguing about their choices or venting  your frustration on them. Your anger will only isolate them more from decisions that aren’t their own. Be patient when handling the situation when they are refusing care. Try and compromise in any way that is possible.  

If you and your family members cannot agree about what medical treatment choices should be made for an aging loved one, consider mediation as an option. It might help ease tensions; especially if any of those involved are feeling overwhelmed by the situation.

Remember who is in charge. You can not make your loved one make any decisions they don’t want to make. As hard as this may be to accept, you need to support them in any decisions they may make. That doesn’t mean you can’t put your two cents in while they are making decisions. Unless it is life-threatening and severe (and sometimes not even then, if they have a DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate, order in place) you can not make them receive medical care if that is not their wish. 

Try home health care. Home health services may not take the place of a doctor, but it is close to the next best thing. If your elderly parent qualifies for home health care it can be a great support.  

Home health care can include nurses and several types of therapists; such as occupational, respiratory, and speech. They are able to do blood draws, diabetic checks, and wound care to name a few services. There is also the option of hiring a professional caregiver for daily tasks and to assist your loved one.

It is common for adult children of aging parents to make major decisions about their elderly family members’ lives. It can often be a difficult and time-consuming task that needs careful attention; but this process becomes easier when we approach our relationships with empathy and understanding from both sides.

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written by:
Lydia Bruno
written by:

Lydia Bruno

Lydia Bruno is a Copywriter for Seniorly based out of Chicago, IL.
View other articles written by Lydia

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