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Changing Bad Habits of Elderly Parents

By , 7:38 am on
Smiling senior hugging daughter in Nashville, TN

Can You Change Parents’ Habits?

If you’re worried about your elderly parents’ unhealthy habits, you’re not alone. If you notice they’re slowing down, not as active anymore physically or socially, or maybe not taking meals regularly, you’ll want to help them out. You know you love them and care about them, but sometimes you just can’t seem to get through to them about changing their habits.

Can you change parents’ habits? Are you able to persuade Mom or Dad to make better choices for themselves? Maybe. Consider first how to best communicate with them before you get started and pick your battles carefully. Does it matter if their dishes are in the sink for just a day? Or is it something more health-related? Don’t lecture a parent or you may end a conversation quickly. When you initiate a difficult conversation, do so when they are feeling most pleasant and amenable, which may be during or right after a good meal. It can help when you maintain a lighthearted sense of humor.

Changing Habits Can Be Hard

“Habit” is defined by as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” Whether it’s a healthy habit or not, changing habits can be hard and you can’t just insist that your parent make changes, as that wouldn’t do any good anyway!

Change Isn’t Easy

If you keep in mind that change isn’t easy, and you probably even have some unhealthy habits yourself, it might be a better approach. If you remember that it’s difficult to change a habit, you’ll know that getting someone else to change is that much more of a challenge.

Help Your Parents Change

Your parents may be acutely aware of changes that are needed, so don’t nag. That can exasperate your parent and make Mom or Dad less willing to cooperate.

Help your parents change by gently explaining your concern to them, while trying to understand their feelings, also.

Is There Something Else Going On?

Sometimes it’s best to get a better understanding of the situation by asking open-ended questions. Uncover whether there’s something else going on. Have they become less active socially because of a recent stress or loss that you were unaware of? Is there a health issue you didn’t know about? Is your parent feeling isolated or depressed? When offering loving elderly care, show your concern for their wellbeing above all. Let your parent know in a loving way that people do notice and care that their home isn’t as tidy as it used to be. If this is the issue, you may have to suggest professional elderly care for them.

Make a Plan for Healthy New Habits

So, what if your parent doesn’t want to consider your healthy changes? Teri Goetz, a writer for Psychology Today, reminds us that just willing a change to happen isn’t effective, but you may have success if you create a plan adding healthy behaviors to replace the unwanted ones. For example, your father thinks about quitting smoking, but you may need to think of a few activities for when his cravings hit. Would a phone call to a friend or family member work, or a 5-minute walk? Help your parent find replacement activities if you want to help them change.

Powerful Social Connections

We are all creatures of habit, and our social connections can powerfully keep us on track or derail us, so if ceasing smoking is the issue, help your parents refrain from cigarettes by expanding your elderly care with them. Take your parent to lunch, find opportunities to spend time with them while they are struggling to change. Build their sense of value, and show how important they are to you while they’re making lifestyle changes.

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

Baby Steps, Please

Changing behaviors is hard, so people who offer elderly care suggest this tidbit: Baby steps, please!

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

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

You can’t force an epiphany, but creating a change in the environment and taking baby steps are great choices for change. Change the environment to make things easier (e.g. get the cigarettes out of the house) and take baby steps – one minute, hour or day at a time. Help your parent have a sense of accomplishment step by step.

Are You the Best for This Conversation?

As much as you might not like it, it’s possible that you’re not the right person to start a conversation about change with your parents. If there’s a mutual friend or ally familiar with elderly care, they might be best to approach your parents.

Carolyn Rosenblatt, an author and expert in aging, iterates that a plea for change is better received when blame is allowed to fall on the adult child, rather than the elderly parents. Something like this is suggested…

“Dad, I know that sometimes I am a nag and incessant worrier, but I’m concerned about your smoking. May I go along with you on your next doctor appointment to ask about ways to quit smoking? I love you so much, and, selfishly, I know I’d probably sleep better if you smoked less, or even quit.”

Have Patience with Elderly Care

Have patience with elderly care. Elderly people have long-ingrained habits. Offer encouragement to them, use compassion, and keep in mind that a sense of humor is always a helpful tool!


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