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How to Help Older Adults Who Refuse to Go to the Doctor

5 expert tips for helping your older loved one seek medical care.

Photo by Ross Helen/Canva
Source: Photo by Ross Helen/Canva

Many people experience this common problem: You care about your older loved one so much, but for some reason, they're don't listen to your pleas for them to go to the doctor. You try and you try, but nothing you say convinces them that whatever is going on in their body or mind is worth checking out. So, here are five tips for what to do if your older loved one is refusing to go the doctor.

1. Consider changing your approach.

If you’re really worried about your older loved one, you might have the tendency to be demanding or pushy. Perhaps back off a bit and share your concerns from another angle. Instead of saying, “Dad, you HAVE to go to the doctor, the swelling in your leg has gotten out of hand,” try having a pleasant conversation and then sharing, “Dad, I notice that the swelling in your leg is getting worse and it concerns me because it could be a sign of something medically wrong and I think we should check it out.”

If he says, “I don’t want to put you out,” respond by reassuring him with, “I’m happy to do this with you, we can go to the doctor and then go to lunch. It’ll be a way for us to spend time together.”

In my years of working with older adults and families, I can confidently say that many older adults are afraid of being a burden on their families and society. The more you can tell your older loved one that you'd enjoy the time together and that it's important to you to be in their life and help at times like this, the easier it'll be to get your older loved one out of the house and to the doctor. As you can imagine, this approach works best if it’s sincere.

2. Try to see where your older loved one is coming from.

If changing your approach doesn’t work and your older loved one is still refusing, ask gentle and loving questions to see where they're coming from. Like, “Tell me what’s going on that makes you not want to go to the doctor.” Then hear them out.

Your older loved one might say things like:

  • “My doctor doesn’t listen to me."
  • “I don’t agree with what my doctor says.”
  • “All they’re gonna do is give me medicine; I’m already on too many medications."
  • “They’re too young.”
  • “They don’t understand me.”
  • “The doctor tells me ‘well of course you’re in pain, you’re old.'"

If your older loved one is saying any of these things, this could be their way of telling you that there are some cultural barriers or missteps happening with their doctor in the form of ageism.

Ageism is discrimination based on age, and in the medical field this often shows up as: “Of course you have THAT problem, you’re old, what do you expect?”

As you can imagine, this approach is not helpful and is actually hurtful toward older adults. This may be a sign that your older loved one needs a doctor who understands older adults. If this is the case, I'd encourage you to offer to help your older loved one find a new doctor—one that specializes in older adults, called a Geriatrician.

3. Ask if your older loved one would be willing to go with another family member or a friend.

If your older loved one doesn’t want to go with you to the doctor (Tip 1) and doesn’t want to find a new doctor (Tip 2), ask if they'd be willing to go with another family member or friend. If your older loved one agrees to this, ask them to name the person they're willing to go with. Then, ask if they'd be willing to call that person now and see if they can help. If you're around, call that person together. Let your older loved one speak first, and then ask if you can share your thoughts.

It can sting a little bit if your older loved one isn't willing to go with you but is willing to go with somebody else. Sometimes it might take a few people to share their concerns before your older loved one takes a medical problem seriously. Other times, it can help for someone closer to your older loved one's age to share their own experience and provide encouragement.

Whatever the case may be, the important piece to hold onto here is that your older loved one is willing to go to the doctor. Take this as an opportunity to expand their care network. This could actually be a win-win—you might not have to help with everything after all.

4. Ask another family member or friend to reach out to your older loved one.

Still refusing? Try asking another family member or friend to reach out to your older loved one to express concern about the medical problem, encourage them to go to the doctor, and ask if they'd offer to take your older loved one to the doctor. If your older loved one is living in a senior community, there may be on-site nurses who can check in on them. You might call the front office and see if there is a nurse on-site who’d be willing to pay a visit.

5. Take a break and give your older loved one some space.

If you've tried all of these strategies, and your older loved one is still not willing to go, you may have to take a break and give them some space. After all, most older adults are capable of making their own decisions about medical care and can decide when and how they wish to go to the doctor. This may be one of the hardest things to do—to sit back and watch your older loved one struggle. It’s really difficult to be powerless and have no control over the actions of somebody you love who is suffering. Especially when, from the outside, it looks like there's a very simple solution—just go to the doctor!

You might be frustrated and angry, but don’t shut your older loved one out. Aging and becoming sick is really scary. Many older adults wonder, “Is this gonna be the illness that takes me out? Are they going to find cancer? A lot of my friends are dying, am I going to be next? They might find something bad, and then what?”

If you do take a step back and give your older loved one some space, don’t throw up your hands and ignore them. Continue to call, visit, and stay engaged. The better the relationship, the more likely your older loved one is to heed your advice down the road.

Important Note

In extreme cases, you may need to call 911 or take your loved one to the ER immediately, even if they're refusing. If you're unsure, please call your loved one's medical provider or 911 for guidance.