How to Turn “No” to “Yes”

In my early days of caregiving, Mom’s “No!” was one of my greatest fears.  I felt powerless against it. It meant a fight. And I could not fight my mother. Sometimes, of course, what Mom was refusing to do was a task that could be put off until another day: letting me trim her nails, for example. If that was the case, I didn’t push very hard. But often, even though the task was a simple daily chore, it was important, for health or hygiene’s sake. So I had to learn to fight.

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Three ways to turn “no” into “yes”:

  • Add a distraction or two.
  • Don’t ask. Just do it.
  • Wait and try again later, as if it’s the first time.

 

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Some days Mom could turn Alzheimer’s into a two-letter word: NO. Regardless of the issue or question at hand, her response to it was “No.” She could say it in a variety of ways:

  • Sometimes she ignored me. Mom became an expert at avoiding eye-contact, simulating deafness, or speaking over me to any other face in the room—like my father’s, or Charley the poodle’s, or the weatherman’s on TV.
  • Sometimes she used body-language. If I asked about putting on her shoes, for example, she’d wedge her bare feet tightly under her chair. Or if I wanted her to take her medications, she slapped her hands over her mouth.
  • And sometimes she simply spoke up with a sturdy “No,” again and again if necessary, louder each time.

angry bird

What to do?

  • Add a distraction or two.

Distractions, of course, will vary from person to person, because each of us has different likes and dislikes. Extreme likes and dislikes make the best distractions. With Mom, I used a favorite food; or a sudden search for what-looked-like-a-flea in Charley-dog’s fur; or a new face on the evening news team. Once I discovered the value of distractions, I began to collect them in my mind like precious gems.

Example: Mom developed a dislike for taking her medications. Though they were clearly a necessity each day, I discovered the less emphasis I put on her taking them, the better. If she said no when I offered them to her, I’d wait a while, then introduce a distraction. Maybe…potato chips! A small handful of potato chips on a napkin were well-nigh irresistible, both for Mom and for Charley. As Mom munched and shared, munched and shared, I’d casually put her medications into her empty hand. As if by reflex she put them in her mouth, drank a sip of the water I offered, and went back to munching and sharing. Distractions could keep Mom from asking quite so many questions in a row. Distractions let me brush her hair. They were a God-send.

bird with worm

  • Don’t ask; just do it.

If you know what the answer will be, why ask the question? Especially if you need a
“yes” but are certain to get a “no”?  So don’t ask. Just do it.

Example: I stopped asking Mom if she wanted to wash her hands before a meal. Though I knew washing was a necessity, especially with baths so few and far between, I knew she was sure to say no to it. So instead of trying to get her up and to the sink, I engaged in a stealth operation. Without a word about what we were about to do, I’d wet a washcloth with warm water, wring it out to semi-wet, and put soap on it. Then I’d wet a second cloth, wring it out so it wasn’t dripping, and carry both to where Mom was sitting at the table. Meanwhile I’d talk about whatever was on TV or who we might visit this weekend or where I used to buy my vacuum cleaner bags and oh my goodness why are there so many kinds they make it so confusing…. Talking nonstop, I’d rub the soapy cloth over her hands and then go over them with the damp one. Her hands were reasonably clean before she could even react. If she did get around to fussing at me, it would usually be with a demand to get that mess (i.e., the soap) off her fingers and get them dry!  I could comply with that order quickly and cheerfully.

  • Wait and try again later, as if it’s the first time.

Some tasks absolutely required cooperation from Mom. Getting into a bathtub or shower, walking outside to get into a car, even putting on fresh clothes—these are things which I couldn’t do for her if she decided to put up physical resistance. So in these cases, I had to be prepared to take no for an answer. And I learned quickly that arguing made the situation worse: Alzheimer’s will not allow its victims to reason their way down from emotional crises. So I learned to try once, maybe twice, then leave the matter alone and try again later, as if it were the first time.

Example: On a day when we had a doctor’s appointment, if Mom refused to go outside to the car, I let the matter go. I let time pass and let Mom forget, if she  would, that we had ever talked about it. After an hour or so, I’d mention it again, as if it were the first time: “Let’s go see Dr. Smith, Mom, and then we’ll go out to lunch!” If I thought it would help on that particular day, I’d tell Mom we were going to lunch without mentioning we’d stop at the doctor’s office first. If she said no again, I’d wait longer. Yes, sometimes it took hours to get her to cooperate, so I learned to make appointments later in the afternoon. And if Mom agreed to leave at 11:30 am for a 2:30 pm appointment, we left then. Better to be early than not get there at all. But sometimes we didn’t get there at all. I had no option: I’d simply have to call the doctor to say Mom wouldn’t come. But I found that giving Mom time to relax and forget her earlier refusal usually worked. We didn’t miss many appointments.

A key part of this strategy is making each attempt sound like it’s the first time you’ve talked about it, because for the one you’re caring for, it may seem as if that’s exactly the case. There’s no value in saying, “Mom, I know you don’t want to do this today, but we have to go to the doctor.” Instead, I could downplay the doctor and emphasize some new distraction. Or I could simply take her arm and lead her to the car with no explanation at all.

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blue in the wild

I had to keep Mom safe. I hoped to keep her comfortable. I wanted to make her happy. But her “no” stopped me. Using the three strategies above, I found I could help Mom cooperate on the difficult days. Using them, I wasn’t fighting my mother; I was fighting Alzheimer’s. I didn’t raise my voice; that made things worse. I didn’t get physical—unless she was putting herself in danger. I just found some good ways to get done what had to be done.

Before we close, here’s an important note.

If your loved one is causing harm to herself or someone else, you can’t depend on distraction, surprise, or delay. You MUST be prepared to intervene. Consider now whether you’re able to handle such a situation yourself. If not, be prepared to summon help: get a commitment in advance from a neighbor, relative, or friend or call 911.

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Father, You are the source of all wisdom, strength, patience, and love. We trust You to light our way as we care for our loved ones. Please answer when we call for help and remind us we are never alone.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”      (Matthew 10:29-31  NKJV)