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“My Mother Just Won’t Listen to My Advice!”

If you’ve ever heard yourself say this, you’re not alone. She's neglecting his diet and letting dirty dishes pile up in the kitchen sink for days, but your advice falls on deaf ears.

So what gives? Can you really help your mom forge a healthier habit? The answer is…maybe. But first you’ll need to ditch the lecture and start a conversation.

Photo: dirty sink next to someone cleaning dishes

Why is it so Hard to Change a Habit?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “habit” as in, "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary" (emphasis mine). This means you can’t order your parent, or anyone else, to let go of a long-ingrained, reflexive behavior.

We All Have Bad Habits

So, kiddo, how about you? Do you have any unhealthy habits? Have you successfully changed one? If so, congratulations. But here’s the thing: It’s hard enough to convince ourselves to change a habit. To try and get another to person to change? That’s another story.

Be Tender When Asking Elderly Parents to Change

Reality check: Our parents know they should change. Using “logic,” or belittling them, will only serve to further entrench the habit.

Think about how your parent feels. Offer compassion. Begin the process of supporting change by telling your parent that you do understand their feelings.

When Parents are Apathetic

Do some detective work. See if the habit is a reaction to stress, or some kind of life change. Could it be health related? Due to increasing social isolation? An inability to do something your folks did routinely for many decades? Major life changes can cause an older person to throw up their hands and say, “who cares about dirty dishes? Why bother?”

Good Habits to Replace Bad Habits

Let’s say your parent agrees to change. Then what? Teri Goetz, writing in Psychology Today, suggests we replace the unwanted behavior with a new, healthier practice.

For instance, if your parent gives up smoking, try another activity that will help fill the void. That could mean gardening or jigsaw puzzles or taking a walk around the block.

Make a Powerful Social Connection

Your parent's social ties are likely changing as friends and family move away or pass on. If you believe their social ties have shifted, see if you can rebuild a sense of connection by working together to curb an unhealthy practice.

Once your parent knows you are in their corner, you might suggest teaming up on habit change. Turn it into a family project. The mere act of collaborating on a shared goal helps rebuild ties between you and your parent. Your mom or dad could gain a renewed sense of optimism and control over their own life.

Allow Your Parent to Accept Help Graciously

Juggling Your Parents' Independence and Safety

How to Tackle Difficult Conversations Around Care

Keep it Simple

Trying to change behavior can be devilishly tricky. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds. Some commonsense advice? Keep things simple.

In his popular program, Tiny Habits, B.J. Fogg shares three keys to change:

  1. We have an epiphany.
  2. We change our environment.
  3. We take baby steps.

As BJ writes, you can't order an epiphany like a burger at a drive-through window. And it might take time to switch your environment.

You can often take a baby step toward a goal. To do this, chunk larger goals down into much smaller ones. This will increase the odds of reaching the goal while helping build a sense of accomplishment for your parent — and for you.

Photo: family building a puzzle

Don't Criticize Your Elderly Parent

Rather than getting caught up in the moment (which is so easy!), plan ahead. Select an appropriate time and location.

Also think about the best person to have the conversation with your mom or dad. Hint: Maybe it’s not you.

Aging expert Carolyn Rosenblatt offers an even more compelling thought — that we make changing the habit about us, not our parents. Here's what you can say to you mother to encourage her to change a habit:

"Mom, I'm such a worry wart, I can't help myself. I'm losing sleep over you not getting enough good food in the house. Could I ask you to try a person out to come in and shop and cook for you a few times a week? I'm sorry to be such a pain.”

Rays of Hope for Better Habits

Hanging in there with our elderly parents as we encourage them to change bad habits can be a monumental task. But if we can muster patience, compassion and teamwork — and help our parents strengthen their social ties — we might find our efforts paid back with rich and rewarding moments.


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

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About the Author(s)

With over 20 years of experience writing for leading healthcare providers, Rob is passionate about bringing awareness to the issues surrounding our aging society. As a former caretaker for his parents and his aunt, Rob understands first-hand the experiences and challenges of caring for an aging loved. Long an advocate for caregiver self-care, his favorite activities include walking on the beach, hiking in the coastal hills of Southern California and listening to music.

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