Changing Bad Habits of Elderly Parents

By , 9:17 am on
Daughter holding smiling older mother in Knoxville, TN

Will Your Parents Make Healthy Changes?

Of course, you’re occasionally worried about your aging parents, but especially so if you think they need some healthy lifestyle changes. You may have noticed that they’re not getting as much activity anymore, have limited social interaction, or aren’t nourishing themselves with regular meals. You love and care about them. You want to help them out, but you just can’t seem to get through to them about making changes.

So, will your parents make healthy changes? Can you persuade Mom or Dad to change? If you’re open to learning a few new things yourself, you can get started! First, be wise about picking your battles. Then, don’t lecture your parent or you’ll end that conversation before it even gets started. Try engaging in conversation during a pleasant of the time of day, which may be right after a good meal and they’re feeling satisfied and most amenable. Keep your calm and try to maintain a sense of humor, as well.

Change Can Be Hard

“Habit” is defined by as “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” Just like brushing your teeth, a morning walk with friends could become a regular habit, too, but you can’t just insist that your parent make changes. It wouldn’t do much good! It’s hard to release, or create, a patterned behavior.

Change Isn’t Easy

Remember that change isn’t easy. You probably have some unhealthy habits yourself. Have you ever made serious lifestyle changes? Yes? Then, you can affirm that it’s difficult to change a habit, but trying to get someone else to change… that’s even more of a challenge.

Consider Your Parents’ Feelings

Mom or Dad are probably aware that some changes are needed, so don’t irritate them by nagging. It could exasperate your parent, making them even less willing to cooperate, as well as create resentment towards you.

Consider your parents’ feelings when asking for a change. Lovingly explain to your parent that you are trying to understand their feelings at this time in their lives.

So, What’s Really Going On?

Be an undercover sleuth. Investigate your parent’s situation by asking open-ended questions to uncover what’s going on. You might find a lack of initiative due to a recent stress or loss. Maybe there’s a health-related issue you didn’t know about? Are they feeling isolated? This can increase apathy.

When offering elderly care, express your concern for their wellbeing most of all. Let the parent know in a loving way that people do notice and care that their home isn’t as tidy as it used to be. Consider whether it’s time for additional professional elderly care.

Plan for Healthy New Habits

What do you do if your parent doesn’t want to consider your healthy changes? Teri Goetz, a writer for Psychology Today, sai that simply willing a change to happen doesn’t work. Form a plan with potential healthy behaviors that can replace the old unwanted ones. For example, if your father wants to quit smoking cigarettes, plan a few substitute activities for those moments that the cravings hit. This might be a good time to make a phone call to a friend or family member or just take a 5-minute walk.  Either one might be enough to help boost willpower.

Powerful Social Connections

We all have powerful social connections that can either keep us on track or derail our efforts to change, so if your parents often socialize with others who smoke, it’s going to be harder to refrain from cigarettes. Expand your loving elderly care by taking your parent to lunch, or finding an opportunity to have more time with them through this time. Show them how important they are to you and build their sense of belonging while they’re working hard on their 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

Important Baby Steps

Changing behaviors isn’t easy, but people who participate in elderly care suggest this tidbit: Baby steps whenever possible!

B.J. Fogg , author and creator of the Tiny Habits® Program, teaches that 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 just order up an epiphany, but changing an environment and taking baby steps are great choices. You can change your environment (e.g. keep no cigarettes in the house) and you can take baby steps. Start with small manageable goals. Help your parent have a sense of accomplishment step by step.

But, Who Starts This Conversation?

But, are you the best person to start a difficult conversation with your parents? If not, consider whether there’s an ally who is familiar with elderly care? Perhaps this friend or family member can approach the subject with your parents.

Carolyn Rosenblatt, an author and expert in aging, says that when you are assisting in elderly care, a request for change is better received when some blame is allowed to fall on the adult child, rather than the elderly parents. Your father may not be as upset if you approach his smoking habit by saying something like this…

“Dad, I know that sometimes I can be a pain and a worrier. Nonetheless, I’m just getting so concerned about your smoking. Would you allow me to go along with you on your next doctor appointment to ask about ways to quit smoking? I just love you so much, and I know I’d probably sleep better if you smoked less, or even quit.”

Muster Patience with Elderly Care!

Muster patience with elderly care. Habits may be long-ingrained. Offer encouragement, be compassionate, and keep 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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