For many, parents are the guiding lights of the first portion of our lives. They make sure we eat healthily, set us up for doctor and dentist appointments, and otherwise work to help us make the best decisions for a fulfilling life. As we age, though, so do they. And there comes a turning point—sometimes it’s one major event or diagnosis, others it’s a gradual shift—when we witness our parents switch from superheroes to humans.
Watching a parent’s health decline or watching them neglect it in small ways can be both scary and frustrating. This can impact your relationship or add stress and angst to your mood and perspective. As psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., explains, a parent’s health impacts their adult children. They will start to worry or will be placed into the role of caregiver. When parents make poor choices—from heavy drinking to ignoring symptoms or advice from doctors—it can be that much more problematic.
When you’re battling with a stubborn parent to clean up their diet or exercise more, consider making your goal less about intervention and more about transparency. As Thomas says, having a candid and vulnerable conversation about their health can illustrate your concerns in a meaningful way. It may even open your parent’s eyes to see why it’s important they stick around for years to come. Here’s how to tackle talking to your parent or parents about health.
Be truthful about what you’re witnessing.
If you’re no longer living underneath the same roof, knowing your mom or dad’s routine is tough. They might swear that they’re eating more vegetables and less red meat, and you’re basically resigned to take their word for it.
However, Thomas says that you do know what you see. If you live close to your parents or take a trip to visit them, note whether they’re keeping up with their health. If their doctor suggests a 15-minute walk every day to improve their heart or is nervous about a bump on their arm, you can note when your parent doesn’t take proactive steps. “It’s important for a child to have an open conversation. The parent might be in denial or too overwhelmed or scared to cope with what is happening and/or to get the appropriate help needed,” she explains. “If your parent is continuing to behave in unhealthy ways that are adding to his or her health issues, this needs to be directly and openly discussed.”
Come from a place of love.
Recognize that your mother or father has already lived a full life. Before you were born, they had hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities—and they still do. Oftentimes, aging requires giving up some autonomy and depending on others. It’s not easy. But it is easier to ask for help when a child comes from a place of love.
“Present the topic in a nonjudgmental, loving way that gently asks for your parent’s input about the health issue,” Thomas recommends. She provides this example as a smart route to take: “I know that you are very independent and able to do so many things. But lately, I’ve noticed that you seem to be walking slower and with a limp. Have you also noticed this, and what do you think it is?”
Go with them to the doctor.
When you went to the dentist for the first time, your mom or dad sat in the hot seat with you so that you wouldn’t be afraid. When you broke your arm during softball, your mom reminded you how strong you are. Your parent took care of you for all those decades, easing your fears and building you up. Now it’s time to return the favor. Thomas notes that no one likes visiting a doctor when they aren’t feeling their best, no matter their age. “Offer to accompany him or her to the proper doctor for a consultation or appointment. By suggesting this, you make sure your parent will get the help needed. Also, this emotional support can help de-escalate some of their distress in dealing with these health concerns alone,” she says.
Follow up and stay in touch.
When your parent is on the road to recovery and trying to improve their condition, they will need a cheerleader from time to time. Maybe you can stop by and bring a healthy salad for them. Or if you’re a few states away, you can send a care package of nutritious goodies to keep them on track.
However you go about it, Thomas suggests maintaining a supportive, honest, and continual line of communication. You should explain why this matters to you and why you’re in their corner. Because it is a two-way street, you’ll need to make sure they’re on board. She suggests saying something like, “I love you. I want to make sure I am aware of anything that is troubling you or questions you might have about your health. I want us to make a verbal agreement that you will keep informing me about your health, including physical and emotional concerns, so I can help you.”
Even if they shy away from the commitment, knowing you’re there—and hearing your voice—may be the nudge they need to prioritize their health. Or at least, it may push them to have one less beer-and-burger dinner and one more serving of spinach instead.