My mom finds it very entertaining that sometimes I’ll call her out of the blue to make her promise that she’ll call me and go to the ER if she’s ever peeing blood or won’t let her off the phone until she recites the symptoms of a stroke or a heart attack. These phone calls are usually immediately preceded by someone I know ignoring a major medical issue and facing serious consequences.

As you may have guessed, my mother is the head of a long line of stoic folks. My relatives silently suffer through years of undiagnosed maladies before falling over dead one day, or worse yet, changing their minds and pursuing treatment when it’s far too late. They’ll see a doctor for a broken leg or something else that can be patched up easily enough, but anything that defies a quick diagnosis and treatment is simply ignored. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered the wonders of modern medicine – they might tough it out, but I’ve become a convert to OTC cold medicines.

How do you handle relatives who refuse medical care?

Figure out their motivation

Are they afraid of aging? Are they worrying about losing control? Are they uncomfortable showing weakness? Does it come down to costs? Even if you disagree with their reasoning, listening patiently and validating their feelings is an essential step to building and maintaining trust.

Be patient

It’s unlikely that you parents will go from keeping their feelings locked inside to being totally open about what they want. It’ll take numerous conversations to make them feel comfortable talking about what’s going on and let you know what their symptoms really are.

Explain the options

Some conditions can be safely ignored, while other conditions can quickly go from treatable to terminal. Having a doctor check something out doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily treat it – many doctors prefer to ‘watch and wait’ with conditions that don’t require immediate treatment. Some parents can be convinced to see a doctor when it means they can make informed decisions about their health care.

Get support

No matter how old we are, our parents are used to telling us what to do, not taking our advice. Think of who your parents are open to taking advice from and get them on board.

Accept that it’s not up to you

Ultimately, you can’t control anyone else’s actions. If your parents opt to forgo a trip to the doctor, that’s their choice. It’s not always easy to accept, but learning the motivations behind their decisions can make it easier.

Coming to an impasse can be a great opportunity to bring up a durable power of attorney, living will, and other important documents. If they don’t agree with your idea of good health care, they’ll need to make sure you understand what they do want and give you the tools to carry out their wishes.

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