Changing Bad Habits of Elderly Parents

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Senior mother smiling with her daughter in Dallas, TX

Can Older Parents Make Healthy Changes?

Sometimes you worry about your aging parents, especially when it’s apparent that they need to make some healthy changes. Perhaps they’re not getting enough activity, social interaction, or eating regular meals. You care and want to help them out, but it seems like your voice just isn’t heard when you try to talk about making changes.

So, how is it possible to persuade Mom or Dad to make healthy changes? Are you open to learning a few techniques? To get started, pick your battles wisely, and never lecture your parent. Engage in conversation during the time of day your parent is most amenable and try to keep a sense of humor.

Habits Can Be Hard to Change

“Habit” is defined by as “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” Brushing your teeth is a healthy habit. A morning walk could become a habit, too, but insisting on behavior change from a parent – or anyone else – won’t do much good! It’s not easy to let go of, or create, a patterned behavior.

Change Isn’t Easy

So, don’t you have some unhealthy habits yourself? And, have you had to make serious lifestyle changes? Yes? Then, you know it’s not easy to change habits, and trying to get someone else to change is even more of a challenge!

Consider Feelings When Asking for Change

Chances are that your mom or dad are actually cognizant of their needed changes, so don’t worsen the situation by nagging. It could exasperate your parent, making them even less willing to cooperate.

Consider their feelings when asking for change. Lovingly tell your parent that you understand their challenges.

Consider Why They Need Change

Be a sleuth and investigate your parent’s situation, asking questions that might uncover what’s going on. Is their lack of initiative a response to a recent stress.? Does he or she have a health-related issue you weren’t aware of? Have you recently seen increased isolation, creating this recent apathy? Does your parent understand that people do notice and care that their home isn’t as tidy as it once was? Is it time for additional professional elderly care?

Healthy New Habits Can Replace the Old

If your parent does want to make healthy changes, then what? Teri Goetz, a writer for Psychology Today, recently wrote that it’s not enough to will a change to happen. Help your parent form a plan, then create an arsenal of healthy behaviors that can replace old unwanted ones. If your parent decides to quit smoking, plan activities for when the cravings hit – like making a phone call to a friend or taking a walk around the block. Either might be enough to boost willpower.

Power in Social Connections

There is power in social connections. They keep us on track or derail our efforts to change. If your parents socialize with other smokers, it’s going to be harder for them to keep off cigarettes. Here’s where you might offer some loving elderly care. Take your parent to lunch, or find ways to increase time with them for a while. Build their sense of belonging by showing them how important they are while they’re working on their habit changes.

Changing a habit can be hard, but good social connections and a sense of control over our own lives can be helpful.

  1. Allow Your Parent to Accept Help Graciously
  2. Juggling Your Parents’ Independence and Safety
  3. How to Tackle Difficult Conversations Around Care

Important Baby Steps

Changing behaviors might not be easy but people who effectively participate in elderly care suggest this tidbit: Simplify where you can.

B.J. Fogg , creator of the Tiny Habits® Program, teaches that there are three things that create long-term behavior changes:

  1. An epiphany.
  2. A change in the environment.
  3. Baby steps.

As B.J. says, a change in environment and baby steps are your best choices. You can change your environment (keep no cigarettes in the house) and you can take baby steps, creating small goals, that lead to bigger ones. Helping your parent attain a goal will create a positive sense of accomplishment for you and your parent.

Who Should Start the Conversation?

Maybe you aren’t the best person to start the difficult conversation with your parents. Is there an ally who has already helped you with their elderly care? Perhaps this person could approach the subject with your parents, instead of you. In the very least, you’ll have to design a plan, select the best time of day and location, with privacy in mind, when initiating the difficult conversation.

Carolyn Rosenblatt, an expert in aging, says that when you are assisting in parents’ elderly care, a challenging request might be more easily received when partial blame is allowed to fall on the adult child, rather than the aging parents. Your mother won’t be as upset if you approach her smoking habit by saying something like this…

“Mom, I know that sometimes I’m just a pain and a worry wart. Still, I’m just getting so concerned about how many years you have smoked. Would you be open to talking with the doctor about ways to quit smoking? I just love you and I know I’d probably sleep better if we talked with the doctor about this.”

Muster Patience!

Muster up your patience with your elderly care. Offer your encouragement in making changes. Be compassionate, keeping in mind that a sense of humor can be helpful, too!


  1. How to Change Unhealthy Habits, by Teri Goetz
  2. TinyHabits
  3. Persuading Our Stubborn Aging Parents, by Carolyn Rosenblatt


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