Resource Center / Caregivers / What To Do When Your Elderly Parent Refuses Medical Treatment

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 Marlena del Hierro Updated on Jul 10, 2023
Reviewed by Angelica P. Herrera-Venson · Reviewed on Jan 14, 2023

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? Whether or not you decide to seek medical care for your loved one 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 legal 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.  

9 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 does not want help can make this process a lot easier on everyone. 

Respect their choices. If your parent is refusing medical treatment due to religious or cultural beliefs, it is important that you and the rest of your family do not pressure your parent 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. Ideally, these conversations happen long before palliative and/or hospice care is needed. Ask them if there is a certain caregiver or family member whom they trust most and could make these decisions on their behalf when necessary.

Respect their autonomy. It is hard for us as adult children to watch our parents disagree with us and make decisions that we may not always support. It is our duty to respect their decisions while guiding them in the right direction. A reason why your loved one may be stubborn about their choice may be that they are feeling a lack of autonomy when other relatives force alternative decisions onto them.

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 fearful or in denial. If your loved one has a mental health condition, 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 your loved one, express your concerns to them 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. Do not wait for a crisis before you discuss 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. To facilitate the process, getting geriatric care from a geriatrician can help you figure out what care services are available for your parent’s needs and medical conditions; if your loved one currently does not have a geriatric team, this might be the time to obtain one.

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; these documents specify who should make medical decisions on behalf of your loved one if they are no longer able to do so themselves. If you and your family have not discussed these forms together, make sure to have a conversation about these forms so that everyone involved knows what their wishes are for medical treatment.

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 have their primary care physician -for familiarity purposes- help introduce other specialists and methods of care. By providing suggestions to their objections, you can help your parents 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 onto them. Your anger will only isolate them and force them into decisions that aren’t their own. Be patient and compromise if possible. 

Try suggesting home health care. Home health services may not take the place of a doctor, but it can be valuable. Home health care can include nurses and several types of therapists; such as occupational, respiratory, and speech.  These trained personnel can perform blood draws, check for glucose levels, and care for wounds and injuries. 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. This process can often be a difficult and time-consuming task that needs careful attention. However, this journey becomes easier when we approach our relationships with empathy and understanding from both sides.


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written by:
Marlena del Hierro

Marlena del Hierro is Vice President of Partnerships and Seniorly’s Lead Gerontologist. Marlena earned her Master of Arts degree in Gerontology from San Francisco State University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Development from California State University. She also serves in an advisory capacity for Jukebox Health. As Seniorly’s first employee, Marlena is a vocal advocate for evolving the aging paradigm, and is a frequent contributor to public discussions about aging. She has served as a resource for media outlets like WGBH, FOX News, CNBC and the Today Show.

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