When a child covers his or her ears when you speak, most of us 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 saying, “If I don’t think about it, then it’s not real.”
Faithful readers tell me that this column is mostly just common sense. Yes, much of it is. But the problem is that many people don’t always do what they know makes sense. They operate on subconscious – and sometimes false – beliefs. And when the results are unpleasant, they’re shocked.
Sometimes we run up against others’ denial. A common example involves older parents, assisted living and the like. I have a friend whose father, living alone in his late eighties, will face both financial and logistical difficulty if he doesn’t make a change in his living arrangements. Dad’s (very understandable) reaction was, at first, classic denial. “I’ve lived in the same house for years. I don’t need to change now! 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 alternative: What if he doesn’t die tomorrow? And of what value is it to risk financial peril 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 deal with this now, then YOUR future emergency is going to become MY future emergency, and we’re going to have a lot fewer choices.”
Some might say, “Your father 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 relatively healthy eighty-year-olds can do more for themselves than the typical five-year-old. In addition, the parent of a toddler has the final say. If your five-year-old throws a 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 have no desire to burden anyone unnecessarily, and some initial denial is completely understandable. It’s part of the coping process. It only becomes a problem if denial becomes the long-term coping strategy rather than just an initial response to a difficult life change. Who couldn’t feel for the elderly father in this situation? Leaving your long-time home – one of life’s major stressors — is no picnic! But at the same time, other factors must be considered. The grown child, with his or her own life and responsibilities, is not required to have his parent(s) become a “future emergency” if circumstances can prevent it.
Family, friends and even the elderly parent, unaware of the relevant facts, will sometimes invite us join them in denial. They might hang up the phone, they might become verbally hostile, or (my favorite) they’ll 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. And, by the way, it is behavior that’s learned in a 3-step process: (1) the guilt is unfairly imposed on us (often as children), (2) we fail to question or challenge it, and (3) we turn around and play it with others. Placing unearned guilt on others is wrong and unfair. If someone laid guilt on you, and it “worked,” then that’s your responsibility. And age is no excuse. However unpleasant that reality can sometimes be, the cycle has to stop somewhere.
Dealing with aging parents and necessary life changes can be one of the most stressful things a family can experience. But the pain and upheaval will only be worse if finger-pointing and unrealistic defiance become part of the process. Common sense and facts, applied with love and understanding, trump guilt and denial every time.