Senior mother and her daughter huggingMom and Dad are older now, you’re worried about their health. They don’t eat well or exercise. They were raised in a time when there wasn’t plentiful information about healthy eating and staying active, and while there is a lot of good information available today, Mom and Dad seem to be ignoring it.

You’ve tried to talk to them about changing their diet and exercising, but it always seems to end up in an argument. How do you help them make a few lifestyle changes?

If the above scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many people with aging parents see that their loved ones aren’t taking care of themselves, but have trouble motivating them to do so. It’s a delicate scenario in which even encouraging words can feel condescending. But you want your parents to be healthy and around for many years to come. Here are our top tips to encourage your loved ones to change their unhealthy ways.

Lead by example. Actions nearly always speak louder than words, especially when those words can come across as judgmental. So rather than nagging your parents to change, start by examining your own life. Do you eat healthfully? Is moderate exercise a consistent part of your life? If not, work on changing your own health behaviors, and let your parents know you’re doing it. Invite them to your morning walk, or have them over for a dinner of healthy grilled fish and vegetables.  Let your behavior help them to contemplate a change in their own behavior.

Start a conversation. Sound like you’re lecturing, and Mom and Dad will shut your words out. Instead, bring up the subject in a non-confrontational way. Try bringing up an interesting news article about a recent health study and ask their thoughts about it. Don’t focus on their behaviors until you sense an openness to new information.  Your parents need to see the importance of their diet and lack of exercise before they will entertain the idea of changing their behavior.  

Make family time healthy time. Many family get-togethers center around food, like Thanksgiving, the Superbowl, or even family dinners. Shake things up by gathering somewhere else than around the table. Ask your parents to take the grand kids to the zoo, or get together at a park for an afternoon of lawn games.

Start small. Change doesn’t happen easily. What’s more, focusing for big behavior changes at the beginning will likely result in poorer outcomes and generate resistance. So help your parents to set small goals they feel they can be successful at.  What about taking a ten-minute walk with you three times a week, be their cheerleader and coach in the beginning. The next week, bump the walk up a few minutes, take the walk in new location, even invite their friends to join.

Have you had an experience with reluctant loved ones? Share your tips for encouraging them to adopt healthier habits in the comments!

For more information about a health diet, see the NIH’s page on the DASH Eating Plan. For more information about physical activity for older adults, see the CDC’s page.