Dear Family Resource,
When it comes to their health, my 84-year-old mom and her 79-year-old sister are polar opposites. My mom acts like everything is fine and won’t tell anyone when she’s sick or in pain. If I ask, she’ll say there’s nothing wrong. But in the last year, I’ve taken her to the doctor for an eye infection and a sprained wrist that happened when she fell. If I call her doctor, she becomes furious at me for “overreacting” and then lies to the doctor saying her eyes are fine, or that she didn’t fall. My aunt on the other hand calls me constantly (or if she can’t reach me she’ll call 911) saying she woke up gasping for breath, is in terrible pain, or is having a stroke. Usually, she checks out just fine. What causes each of them not to be truthful about their health issues, to themselves and everyone else? Is there anything can I do about it?
~Family of Fibbers
Why Elders Aren’t Honest About Their Health
Dear Family of Fibbers,
Yikes – you certainly have your hands full. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of why your mother and aunt aren’t telling the truth about their health, figure out what they really want, and how to help them. People aren’t always honest about their health for a variety of reasons. One of the most common reasons is that it’s often scary to face the truth about anything unpleasant.
I think your mom is hiding the truth about her health, perhaps because she’s afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. Perhaps she’s afraid she will lose her health and independence and have to move. Although the thought of losing one’s health and independence as we age is a frightening prospect for many people, what can be really scary is the unknown. You can reassure her that you not only want her to remain independent, but you will do everything you can to make sure she remains independent. Perhaps your mother will alert you when she has a health issue or a fall if she understands ignoring the problem could result in losing what she is trying to protect – her independence. If she feels you are on her side by respecting her feelings about not wanting to examine her health issues too closely, she is more likely to reach out to you when the day comes she really needs your help.
Your aunt is a different story. Some people have attention-seeking personalities or hypochondriac tendencies. If this is your aunt, her behavior may simply be part of who she is. If this is so, she also could be scared and lonely, and her health complaints give her a way to engage other people and get sympathy. Being a good listener when she needs you, being as patient as you can, and getting your aunt involved in activities in and out of her home may help fill her time and get her mind off of herself.
Good luck. Your mom and your aunt are lucky to have you on their side.