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Your Elderly Parent’s Unhealthy Habits - How to Intervene

“He just won’t listen.” How many times have you said this about your aging dad? As the family caregiver, you're butting heads with him more often. Dad's lifestyle choices have taken a toll on his body; however, he refuses to change. You may be at a breaking point, but Dad is notoriously stubborn. He’s set in his ways. He often gives the usual response: “I’m old enough to live the way I want.”

Pushback like this can make caring for an aging parent far more difficult than it already is. Maybe Dad smokes too much or still drinks like he did when he was younger. You can’t remember the last time you saw him eating a fruit or a vegetable without you dropping by. He’s overweight and not exercising. He can barely remember to take his medication regularly, so you always have to remind him. A trip to the doctor’s office might have revealed a worsening chronic condition, maybe diabetes or high blood pressure.

No matter the exact diagnosis, the doctor has given a stern warning: Dad needs to change his ways or suffer irreversible damage. For instance, smoking increases the risk for heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases (CVD). Per the CDC: “Smoking is a major cause of CVD and causes one of every three deaths from CVD.” Yet, the largest demographic of smokers belongs to the 45-64 year age group.

However, at this point, you're the only one worrying. Dad could care less. He's continued with his unhealthy habits as if nothing’s wrong. When you speak up, he gets defensive, dismissive or retorts with morbid comments (We’re all gonna die). The argument goes nowhere because Dad won’t budge. You’re both left emotionally exhausted.

Don't let yourself get caught up in arguments. Instead, understand how habits are formed and can be modified if you take a thoughtful, long-term approach. 

Don’t Scold; Use Jokes Instead

It’s almost a reflex to tell Dad: “You need to change your ways,” but this message will almost always be met with resistance. No one wants to feel inadequate. Pointing out what’s wrong and leaning only on rational logic seldom works. You could hurt his ego by trying to give him orders, which may be an invitation for Dad to put up walls, deflect or ignore you. Squash the judgment. Don't make conversations one-sided with you talking to Dad. Instead, it’s important to facilitate a two-way conversation, talking with Dad. Open the discussion with something playful when both of you are relaxed. As the family caregiver, your mood can set the tone of the interaction.

When casually conversing back-and-forth, you’re creating an emotionally safe space. Dad can let his guard down more. Try to inject some humor. A joke here and there can help create a bonding moment. Then you may gently approach the subject of his health. Focus on the present moment.

For example, instead of telling Dad he needs to incorporate vegetables into his daily diet, ask if he’d like a small salad for dinner, and let him know how happy him eating it would make you. Parents still want to make their children happy.

Carolyn Rosenblatt wrote a book on caring for aging parents. She describes her success with using jokes on a senior: “After I had the guy cracking up for a sec, I'd quickly take advantage of that moment and slip into the subject about which I wanted to convince him. Now it was time to get out of bed, even if it hurt and yes, you have to do it now. The immediate "laughterglow" of sharing something a little funny is perfect for breaking down resistance.”

Slowly Replace Bad Habits

On a daily basis, habits are seemingly on autopilot and become ritual. A behavior forms because there is a "reward,” or instant gratification from doing it. Perhaps you could change the habit-reward dynamic. Alternatively, it’s possible that Dad just needs another healthy habit to replace the bad one.

For example, eating low-nutritious, high-calorie junk food may ruin Dad’s appetite for real food, but he continues because not only does junk food taste good, junk food is readily available when Dad isn’t skilled at making his own meals. To slowly steer Dad away from the endless junk food, you’d have to monitor his meals more carefully. Prepare salads and lean meats for him. When grocery shopping, pick out slightly healthier, "baked" chips or veggie sticks. That way, he'll still get his ‘fix' but with a better alternative.

Moreover, when Dad does eat something healthier, make sure you give extra praise. Putting Dad in a good mood will be positive reinforcement. It will help encourage him to eat better again.

With bad habits like an addiction to smoking, you’ll have to be extra patient. Dad may have smoked for years. It could be a way to relieve boredom or stress. As much as you’d like to relay the alarming statistics about smoking and preventable death, you cannot lecture him. Instead, let him know how his smoking affects you and your family. Consider saying something like: I want you to stay healthy so that you can enjoy spending time with me, the grandkids, and everyone else who loves you.

Find activities to replace the daily boredom and take away his stress. Go on daily walks with him. Play a board game or watch a fun movie. Rally your family to encourage him and distract him from smoking. Dad may rely on anti-smoking patches or gum. However, nothing replaces an “accountability buddy” who can be there to keep him focused on other tasks.

Still, keep in mind, breaking old habits is hard. Be flexible and anticipate setbacks. When Dad slips up, be gentle but firm. Focus on getting Dad back on track as quickly as possible. Remember, the road to a healthier lifestyle isn’t a straight line. It may zigzag depending on daily circumstances and Dad’s mood.

Is it Dementia or Alzheimer's?

Of course, it’s not necessary to consider dementia just because your dad is pushing back against your best intentions. But if Dad is becoming extra aggressive and angry, it is possible there may be more going on than just stubbornness. You may need to screen Dad for dementia or Alzheimer’s. “[T]he percentage of people with Alzheimer’s dementia increases dramatically with age: three percent of people age 65-74, 17 percent of people age 75-84 and 32 percent of people age 85 or older have Alzheimer’s dementia,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association report.

Anger or frustration may be a symptom of this cognitive decline. It is normal for stubborn people to push back against people trying to change long-time habits; however, if you're noticing a worsening attitude, especially if it fluctuates, it may be worth just getting an evaluation. 

Home Care Supports Better Health

The reality is, changing the long-time habits of aging parents is extremely difficult. There is no simple way to do it, and some seniors refuse to change. As the family caregiver, you’re already taking on all of Dad’s care duties while juggling a life with kids, a job and your own household. Choosing to tackle your parent's unhealthy habits can compound the degree of difficulty, especially when no progress is made, and instead, you and your parent are always butting heads.

Consider selecting home care. These professional caregivers are trained to provide a host of personalized care, quality dementia and Alzheimer's care. Dad can be steered toward a healthier lifestyle. Experienced , professional caregivers offer medication reminders, blood pressure checks and daily meal preparations. Dad will be monitored to make sure he’s eating better. The professional caregiver would also be a friendly companion helping him to stop smoking and other unhealthy habits.

Learn more on how to talk to Dad about needing home care here.

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