Downsizing: How to Help a Senior Parent Who Refuses to Listen

Learning how to help a senior parent who refuses to listen is a process

Downsizing can be a frustrating experience all on its own. But, if you’re an adult child trying to help a senior parent downsize, there’s usually one more frustration to face. You can’t figure out how to help a senior parent who refuses to listen to the commonsense solutions you’re offering.  

I’ve seen this time and time again in my downsizing career. While walking through the initial home consult with a client, the client seems all too willing to accept my recommendations for things like what to take, what will fit, or suggestions on what they’ll need in their smaller quarters.

I’ll then observe the family in stunned silence. They’re clearly frustrated, and maybe even a bit angry, because they’ve been making the exact same recommendations to their parent for weeks and getting complete resistance.

What’s happening here?

No matter how old you are, you’ll always be their kid

You’ll Always Be Their “Kid”

You’re probably feeling a bit insulted or hurt and asking the question “Don’t they trust my opinion or respect me as an adult?” They do. But, what can take the sting away is to understand that these reactions are largely unconscious behavior.

The reality is that no matter how old we are, our parents will always continue to see us as their “kids”. By stepping into their leadership territory, you’re threatening a parent/child hierarchy that they aren’t prepared for or want to change.

Yes, they’re super proud of your accomplishments and appreciate your intelligence and skills in your careers or raising your family. But they are never prepared to relinquish their role as a leader, mentor, or parent to someone of a younger age.

The only exception to this rule is if that person is considered a seasoned professional or expert (and frankly, even then it’s questionable).

Resisting the “Take Over”

But there’s even more going on here. Where the fundamental disconnect starts to occur is when a senior parent perceives their “child” is attempting to question their decisions or take over their “parental” role.

If you’re like most of my client’s families, you’re probably asking “But why would they resist or feel threatened when I’m only trying to help and make it easier for them?”.

The answer lies within the myriad of strong emotions that most older adults experience during a significant change like downsizing. A parent’s coping mechanisms might be strained or lacking entirely because downsizing, or any significant transition that occurs later in life, can bring on substantial feelings of fear, confusion, anxiety, and even depression.

In some cases, that fear and anxiety can create a medical condition called Relocation Stress Syndrome that affects older adults’ emotional, physical and psychological capacities that can interfere with their ability to cope with change.

For more on this very real condition, see my blog post “Is Relocation Stress Syndrome Real?” by clicking below.

The fears behind resistance

The Fears Behind Resistance

In addition, many seniors also report a crisis of identity. They’re scared that they might be losing control over their life or their independence.

They may feel like they aren’t valued by society or by their family after years of hard work and contributions to their community.

As you can imagine, this can throw even the most centered and confident of adults into a downward spiral.

3 Things You Can Do

So how do you help your senior parent who is refusing to listen and support them in a more positive and constructive way?

1. Don’t take it personally.

Getting push-back from a parent when you’re doing your best to help can be frustrating, but don’t take it personally. Understand that transition can create a sense of chaos and uncertainty for them and fight the urge to “take control”. Instead, work with your parent from a place of patience and compassion.

2. Open the lines of communication

It can be tempting to jump in and take the lead, but this can often create more harm than good. It signals to your parent that you don’t trust them to make their own decisions. Instead, offer suggestions and ask for buy-in.  If you meet resistance, dig deeper. 

Often the reason they give for resisting is just a surface response to what’s really bothering them. Be prepared to find that the “real” reason has nothing to do with an item you’re asking them to get rid of or acceptance of a plan that you are proposing.

For instance, maybe it’s resistance to a decision to get rid of a set of china they no longer use.

It’s not about needing it to entertain in their new home. It’s typically more about the emotions of coming to grips with letting go of the memories they have of using that china on special occasions and the joy that provided.

Validate and honor their emotions.

3. Validate and honor their emotions.

When you’re feeling something painful, the last thing you need is someone telling you that you’re being over-emotional or unrealistic. Resistance is often born from the sense of rejection or judgment that response can create.

Instead, let your parent know that you understand that what they are experiencing is painful and overwhelming and that you’re there to support them.

Ask them to guide you on how you can make it easier. For those parents who are incredibly independent, this can be difficult because it’s their greatest fear to be seen as vulnerable or physically limited.

Acknowledge that fear and let them know you genuinely want to encourage and ensure their independence, not take it away.

You’ve Got This!

At the core of this emotionally charged challenge are a toolkit of patience, active and respectful listening, and open communication.

You can make their transition easier and reduce your own stress by realizing that change can be difficult for us all, no matter the age. Think about how you would want to be treated in your own later years ahead and act accordingly.

So, until next time, my friend, as I always say….stay safe, stay healthy and stay strong!


P.S. For more information on ways to make senior downsizing easier, please visit my Downsizing Made Simpler Series at The Downsizing Institute