Understanding, patience and reality: good medicine for elderly parents


When a child covers his or her ears so as not to hear what you have to say, most of us can’t help but think of it as ‘cute.’ But when an adult evades, denies or ignores something significant, that’s where ‘cute’ ends and ‘denial’ begins. It’s the equivalent of putting a hand over the brain and saying, “If I don’t think about it, then it’s not real,” or, “If I cover my ears, then there’s no sound.” Both are equally ridiculous.

Many readers tell me that this column is mostly ‘just common sense.’ Yes, much of it is. But the problem with human beings is that they don’t always do what they know makes sense. They sometimes operate on subconscious—yet false—beliefs, and when the results end up being unpleasant, they’re shocked. By challenging those subconscious beliefs, and resisting denial, the correct path will often make itself clear.

Sometimes we run up against others’ denial. A common example of this involves older parents who need to consider assisted living and the like. I have a friend who is going through this very thing. If his father (living alone in his late eighties and still pretty healthy overall) doesn’t make a change in his living arrangements, he will face both financial and logistical difficulty ‘sometime’ down the road. The father’s (very understandable) reaction was, at first, classic denial. ‘I’ve lived in the same house for sixty years. I don’t need to change at this late stage. I could die tomorrow. We’ll figure things out later.’

‘I could die tomorrow’ doesn’t sound like denial, but it is. He’s denying the other side of the coin: What if he doesn’t die tomorrow? And of what value is it to live with unnecessary financial risk and emotional stress? And how fair is it to impose this on his grown children when there are clearly other alternatives? I like the way my friend bottom-lined it with his father: ‘Dad, if we don’t take care of this now, then YOUR future emergency is going to become MY future emergency—and we’re going to have a lot fewer choices.’

I realize some might say: ‘Your father raised you and took care of you when you were helpless. Why won’t you do the same, now that he’s vulnerable?’ For one thing, there’s a difference between vulnerable as opposed to being a helpless child. Most eighty-year-olds can do more for themselves than the typical five-year-old, assuming they’re not paralyzed by illness. In addition, the parent of a toddler has the final say. If your five-year-old throws a perfectly understandable tantrum because you’re moving and leaving his friends, you don’t stop and say, ‘Well, we can’t move. He’s not happy with it.’

My experience has shown that most older people in these dilemmas have no intention of burdening anyone unnecessarily. Some denial, at first, is completely understandable. It’s part of the process of coping and staying sane. It only becomes a severe problem if denial becomes a long-term ‘coping’ strategy, rather than an initial response to cushion the impact of a difficult life change. Who couldn’t feel for the elderly father in this situation? Leaving your long-time home, and going through one of life’s major stressors—moving—is surely no picnic! But, at the same time, other factors must be considered. The grown child—with his or her own life and responsibilities—is entitled to not to have his parent(s) become a ‘future emergency’ if circumstances exist that can prevent it.

Family, friends and even the elderly parent, unaware of all the relevant facts, will sometimes invite us to ‘cover our brains.’ They might hang up the phone, they might become verbally hostile, or—my favorite—they might play the guilt card. ‘That’s OK, move me to assisted living; I’m going to die unhappy, anyway.’ Well, isn’t that nice. Though there’s much to feel for this elderly parent, the invitation to deny the facts is not a friendly one. The guilt card is the oldest trick in the book.

The guilt card is learned behavior. Typically, it’s a 3-step process: (1) the guilt is unfairly imposed on us (often as children), (2) we fail to sufficiently question or challenge it, and (3) we turn around and play it out with others. But placing unearned guilt on others is wrong and unfair. If someone laid guilt on you, and it ‘worked,’ then you have to take responsibility for the fact that you allowed it to work. And age is no excuse. However unpleasant reality and logic can sometimes be, the cycle has to stop somewhere.

Dealing with aged parents and necessary life changes can be one of the most difficult things a family can go through. But the pain and upheaval will only be worse if finger pointing and unrealistic defiance are allowed to become part of the process. Common sense and reality, along with love and understanding, will trump guilt and denial every time.