How to motivate mom and dad?
December 13, 2007 2:25 PM   Subscribe

How do you motivate older people to do things that are good for them?

In particular, I mean my parents who are both about 60. Both quite successful in their careers (both are self-employed) but at the same time both completely incapable of eating healthy, exercising, keeping the house clean (as in: not messy - for the record the house is not dirty just very messy). I would like them to start eating healthier but most of all to start eating less - they keep eating even when they are not hungry anymore, it seems to me like pure gluttony. They are not hugely obese or anything - but they should lose some weight (especially my dad who has heart problems). They do not exercise - they bought an exercise bike and an elliptical some 10 years ago but so far the two stand in their bedroom and serve as coat hangers. Finally, they are both highly unorganized.

I would like to introduce some positive changes in their life, and namely, convince them that the portions they are ingesting are huge and too fatty. That they should do some exercise, at least in a form of a daily walk - we did this for a week when we were all on vacation, and they loved it and promised they would continue when back at home - but nothing came out of it).

I'm just looking for ideas on how to help them change these thins, how to inspire and motivate them. One constraint is: I do not live in the same city as them, another: as most older people, they think they are too old to change, and finally they are devoid of self-discipline. But, in any case, feel free to give any sort of advice, whether it's empirically tested or not.
posted by barrakuda to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First question - have your parents asked you for advice, or is this just you wanting them to have your priorities?

Sadly, if it's the former, as I'm guessing, then no, there's nothing you can do to "help them change" until they decide that they're ready to. You can support them, you can cheer them on, but you can't force them to change. It'll just antagonize them, and drive a wedge between you.

That being said, the best you can do is model the behavior you'd like to see. When you do visit them, take them to restaurants serving healthier food. Cook tasty but healthy things for them in the home. Go for walks with them, leisurely and on the short side.
posted by canine epigram at 2:36 PM on December 13, 2007

barrakuda, your parents are old enough to decide for themselves how they will live. And frankly, the changes you would like to see them make are the sort of things that really don't happen until THEY want to change.

Tell you what-turn the question around and imagine they are asking the question regarding YOU making some substantial changes in YOUR lifestyle? How would you react to that, and what could they do that would conceivably cause you to change?

If you actually come up with something, do that. And report back to us how it went.
posted by konolia at 2:41 PM on December 13, 2007

One of the rights we most cherish here in the US is the right to act stupidly. I will defend to the death my right to make mistakes -- or rather, to do things that other people think are mistakes.

There are few things in life I hate and fear more than those who would try to control me "for my own good". I will decide what is good for me. And if I want your advice I'll ask for it.

Your parents deserve that same consideration. They can make up their own minds. Leave them alone.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:46 PM on December 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

You know the joke—how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but it must want to change.

It's the same with our parents. I feel for you. I nagged my folks—my mom especially—about similar stuff for the longest time before I realized that she wasn't going to change (and she nags me, and I don't change). It's one thing to let them know you're concerned and ready to help. It's another to nag, and it's not worth it.
posted by adamrice at 2:47 PM on December 13, 2007

The people who study this stuff call call it adult learning theory and have produced a pretty large body of work. (Sorry, those are just top google hits for the phrase.) It was part of the curriculum for a geriatric clinical in I had in nursing school. I haven't had much luck using it on my dad, the type II diabetic, who still slams Chunky Monkey by the pint.
posted by klarck at 3:20 PM on December 13, 2007

I agree that one won't change until they really want to, however, if they're close to making a change a little push or inspiration may do it. It did for me. After contemplating the difficulty of a lifestyle change the book "Younger Next Year" made a profound impression on me.
I now ski , swim, cycle, eat better.... Your example is probably most influential, but a book is non-threatening and may make a difference. Plus it was a joy to read and very inspiring.
posted by Northwest at 3:29 PM on December 13, 2007

My advice? Back off. Believe it or not, most people have decided how to live their lives by that age, and don't want some kid telling them "no, this is how you should do it." I'm sure you've made your feelings clear by now; harping on it will just alienate them. And trust me, by the time you get to be their age you'll be resenting "helpful" comments from people your age, so you might practice your karma in advance.
posted by languagehat at 3:42 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Jesus Christ people, you are being the most unhelpful and defeatist bunch so far. For your info, both my parents recognize the fact that they have to change some of their habits, they just don't know how to do it and don't have the self-discipiline to stick with any of their plans (and they have voiced the desire to change for the past decade without my prompting). Also, even though your telepathic powers tell you otherwise, I have never attempted to force them to do anything, never antagonized them, driven a wedge between us, nagged, harped on them or otherwise. I am simply trying to find ways to motivate them and instill some healthy habits in them. (my question wasn't: whether it's the right thing to do - but iwhether anyone had suggestions on achieving it. if you don't have such suggestions, please do not contribute and do not try to psychologically dissect my family - that will be a whole another question that i'll post one day). thanks.
posted by barrakuda at 4:20 PM on December 13, 2007

surely there is a gym near them that offers personal trainers. buy them a month's worth of sessions for christmas/hanukkah.

also, they may be so out of shape (weak, not obese) that the bike and elliptical are too difficult. if you have the cash, a recumbent bike might be a better starter option.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:29 PM on December 13, 2007

Given that you say they *want* to change their habits and are financially comfortable, might they be willing to spend money on a personal trainer? It's easy to give up and slack off on exercise when the only people you're accountable to love you unconditionally. Maybe a non-relative whom they are paying and who is physically present while they exercise might successfully motivate them?
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:37 PM on December 13, 2007

Not nagging is one thing, but never taking an interest is another... I think people are a little too invested in "letting people live their lives" these days, to the point where it just becomes, "well, if they want to freeze to death under a big rock, who am I to intervene?" Sure, respect is important, and if people make it clear that your attempts to help are misguided, then drop it, but trying to help in the first place isn't wrong.

Re: the parents, one thing they have that can be a good resource is each other - they reinforce each other's habits, both the good ones and the less good ones. They can take advantage of that if they have or agree to the same goals, by knowing that in pushing the other, they're pushing themselves, so to speak. So if they're supposed to exercise, one of them can bring it up, and the other can hem and haw a bit, but sort of go along with it, and if the first one loses steam, take up the reins, so to speak... I know I sometimes don't exercise just at the last minute - like I was all set to go and then I just get lazy / depressive for a few minutes and miss the class I was gonna take, and then it seems like I don't have time, etc. But all it takes for me to actually go is sticking to my original plan, and I'm sure if I were meeting a partner, I'd feel more compelled.

Do they have a regular schedule, or is their work so flexible that they just do what needs to be done, kinda thing? A regular office & work week can help keep things organized, though hiring an assistant could be an option if they really feel helpless getting things under control.
posted by mdn at 4:54 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think a huge part of the diet thing is generational -- they grew up in the 40s and 50s, remember, when a square meal meant a tongful of salad with cottage cheese on top and a side of canned beans.

So maybe you could try cooking a really healthy meal for them now and again, with fresh steamed veggies, a real salad w/ oil and vinegar, a small portion of meat, etc.

As far as the exercise thing goes, maybe you could encourage them to join a gym? Or go for regular swims? If there is a social element involved maybe they'd find it more fun. I don't blame them for not using the home gym equipment -- it sucks.
posted by Camofrog at 6:18 PM on December 13, 2007

I tried doing that with my folks. I failed pretty miserably. They're going to live as they want to until they decide for themselves they need to change and are willing to put in the effort for their own sakes.

I tried to get my dad to stop smoking for years and the only thing that actually made him quit was having a leg amputated because of it, and even then he fought it for a while. After the surgery the doctor gave him a card for a mortician and said if he didn't stop smoking he was going to need his services. If I'd given him a card for the mortician, it probably would've just made him want to smoke more.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:46 PM on December 13, 2007

For your info, both my parents recognize the fact that they have to change some of their habits, they just don't know how to do it and don't have the self-discipiline to stick with any of their plans (and they have voiced the desire to change for the past decade without my prompting).

Well, maybe you should have said that up-front. That's why I asked, and that's why you got the answers you did.

If they're receptive to it, send 'em recipes, and a personal trainer for a few sessions. Suggest they go see a nutrionist. Or take some healthy cooking classes. Or yoga. Something that forces them to make a commitment and stick to it because they paid for it. Buy 'em a few motivational books. Maybe it'll light a fire under them, since they're asking for help.

If any of it works, report back.

Otherwise, I stand by my advice, and most other people's here - you may not want to hear it, but it's unfortunately true that ultimately your parents are responsible for finding the motivation within them.
posted by canine epigram at 7:05 PM on December 13, 2007

canine, seriously, don't lecture me on how the question should be asked. nothing in it indicates that i'm doing anything against their will. the fact that your first thought is to second guess and come to the conclusion that "i want to force my priorities on them" is your issue and is unhelpful. (it's the same curiously negative and suspicious approach that results in every single relationship question being answered: you need to break up!)

finally, while its true that every single person needs to find motivation and strength within them, sometimes they do need a little helpful push in the right direction. i'm asking what that push should be.
posted by barrakuda at 7:37 PM on December 13, 2007

Your question contains a lot of judgements and opinions stated as facts about your parents, as opposed to factual descriptions of their behaviors. You say about their eating: "to me, it seems like gluttony". That's morally loaded. You say they completely lack self-discipline (yet are both self-employed??), and you say most older people think they are too old to change. Since you have not talked to most older people, this is another inflammatory opinion stated as fact.

Perhaps you could be more helpful if you recognized these things and approached your parents differently than you have. Perhaps there is something in your approach that actually bothers them personally, and that's why it has been ineffectual (it certainly bothers me, perhaps it also bothers them, even unconsciously). I am not saying you shouldn't try to help your parents, who have expressed a desire for help. That's very loving in my opinion.

I have helped my parents with quite a few things, as I have strengths in areas where they do not (and vice versa of course). I tried to resist the urge to "push" at all. Your parents habits are deeply entrenched and are assuredly part of their personalities. Trying to learn more about my parents' separate characters, personalities and desires really helped me to help them. To me, your parents both seem independent and they like what they like. Loose habits, loose environment. Creating their own space and being self-directed, which may represent freedom. 6 decades of hard earned freedom. Comfort, independence and pleasure seem more important to them than conformity and externally imposed structure. Yet some part of it is not working for them, and that's why they want help.

You know them far better than I do, and you can get to know them even better than you do now, even at a distance. I would suggest starting with that. Then look for resources that actually would appeal to your parents and you can make suggestions. Even better, you can try new things yourself, and tell them about it. Anything that makes your life better. And be detailed about just how much your own life has improved using whatever. Get them involved in your world, your experiences, just as you should be involving yourself more in theirs (without the negative judgements).
posted by Danila at 10:43 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, re: motivation. I think everyone is motivated. You ought to learn what exactly motivates your parents if you want to push those buttons. For example, I don't cotton to diets or being told what to eat and how much to eat by anybody else. I also like my soft fatness, so I don't want to lose weight, another external pressure as far as I'm concerned. But I don't like feeling uncomfortable in my own body either. So an intuitive eating approach helps me, listening to my body, what it wants and when. The only restrictions are imposed by the responses of my own body, and that means I don't want it anyway, if it makes me feel bad. I hate feeling bad. Now those are just some of my motivations. Perhaps you can find out what motivates the people you want to help, and go there. They have to want more than to change. They have to want the way to change as well.
posted by Danila at 10:49 PM on December 13, 2007

Do they have easy internet access, and are they comfortable with navigating around? Maybe you can start a family fitness and/or nutritional challenge, and track your collective progress on shared sites like WeEndure or FitDay (there are other askme threads about which tracking sites are the best). Then you'd be participating, even though you don't live near your parents. A you can widen your challenge to include family friends, more distant relatives, etc. I've found that tracking my fitness progress is online is a great motivator, mostly because I feel accountable for my decisions.

Another idea would be to encourage them to take part in a community event like a fitness walk for charity. Do something similar in your own hometown, so you're all committing to a shared goal. Promise to all walk X times a week in preparation, or whatever everyone's workout of choice is.
posted by bassjump at 6:32 AM on December 14, 2007

The Stages of Change Model might be interesting for you (or them) to look at. Perhaps your parents could use a therapist or other support person whom they see regularly to help them stay on track, set reasonable goals, deal with setbacks. A personal trainer, especially one found at a gym, may not be the best answer for folks their age. In my experience, personal trainers tend to have limited understanding of the physiology of aging, and the needs of older people.

If they want to start simply, a walking/lifestyle program that incorporates a pedometer is also a great, and proven, motivator. Lots and lots of stuff about this online. It won't help with overeating, but will increase their fitness and help them feel better about themselves. That just might lead to healthier eating habits as well. Just be sure to get a good pedometer. This company makes one I like.

Personally, I really like The Hack Diet, but this may not appeal to them. At least you could send them the link and tell them why you think it's a good read/good program.

Best of luck to you and your parents.
posted by pammo at 7:09 AM on December 14, 2007

hmmm, i guess more information is needed in this particular case. My parents are from and live in Eastern Europe. They do not speak English and although they do have access to the internet - they are convinced that computers are too difficult and they wouldn't be able to "learn them". Actually, one of my resolutions is to show them that they can learn how to operate computers - and hopefully expose them to the wonderful world of the internet.

Some other info, my mom is quite timid and somewhat insecure. She cares very much about "what people will say" and I think she would feel uncomfortable with a personal trainer (she definitely feels uncomfortable about the idea of getting a massage and general similar contact with strangers). When she visited me a few months ago I took her to the gym in my apartment complex, put her on the threadmill, gave her my ipod full of latino music and jumped on the threadmill next to her. She said that she really enjoyed this (and I believe her) just as she said she truly enjoyed our morning walks on the beach (about 1 hr each morning).

I think the problem is that they don't believe they can achieve certain things, they easily fall of track even when they make committments to their health and most of all they do not know how to approach healthier living. The tradition in Eastern Europe is to go with the trendy miracle diets (the swedish diet, the danish diet, the cabbage soup diet, whatever), in any case, something that is finite, and not something that is a lifestyle change and permanent.

Also, between the two, my father is the one with a stronger and more rogue character and each time they make resolutions, he's the one to break the ranks and drag mom with him.

Anyway, thank you for helpful suggestions and keep them coming.
posted by barrakuda at 8:00 AM on December 14, 2007

the fact that your first thought is to second guess and come to the conclusion that "i want to force my priorities on them" is your issue and is unhelpful.

Dude, I was just asking a question - to find out whether your parents wanted the help. Relax. Notice that question mark? Now I know they do, and am answering accordingly. It wasn't meant as an accusation.

The suggestions about finding healthy activities in their community, so they're not doing it all alone, is a great one. Are there groups that they could hook up with to go walking? I think so far, doing the healthy stuff with them when you visit is a good start. Maybe order some simple and healthy cookbooks.

Danila has a lot of good points about motivation.
posted by canine epigram at 1:24 PM on December 14, 2007

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