10 Secrets That Aging Parents Keep

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Your aging parent may be keeping secrets from you. Not necessarily lies, but withholding of information that may be important to their health, safety or general well-being. Sometimes, when elderly parents keep secrets, its because they feel their Independence slipping away. They might be embarrassed to ask for help. They might fear their family's reaction. They might be afraid that family members will "put them away." Or they simply might not want help.

So they cover up bruises, falls, car accidents, money trouble, alcohol use, and more. Ironically, when they keep secrets, seniors are actually putting themselves in danger and often increasing the chance that they will have to rely on others to care for them.

There are a wide range of "secrets" that elders tend to keep, according to Marilyn Sharbach Ladew, MSW, a nationally recognized expert in senior caregiving.

Here are the top 10 most common secrets.

1. Falls: Falls are the leading cause of death, injury and hospital admissions among the elderly population. "It's easy for an elderly person to cover up a fall, particularly if no bruising or bone breaks was suffered. Your parent may worry that you will try to him/her to a wheelchair or walker," Ladew says. The preservation of independence is of major importance to older adults, even at the risk of falling.

2. Pain: "So not to cause you worry, your parent may not tell you about new or increasing pain," she says. As a caregiver, you need to know about pain so that you can get the proper medical treatment or medication for your loved one.

3. Dizziness: "Dizziness could be caused by low blood pressure or a medication" Ladew explains. Although your parents may not want to alarm you, this is a potentially serious and dangerous problem that needs to be addressed.

4. Auto accidents or driving infractions: "Your parent probably wants the freedom and independence that driving provides. Therefore, if they are in an accident or receive a driving violation, they may withhold that information, for fear that you will take away the car keys," Ladew says. A driving violation or accident may be indicative of failing health conditions such as vision, mobility or mental awareness.

5. Money shortages: "If the parent's money supply starts to fail, he/she may cut back on buying food and medications," Ladew says. Clearly, this can be very dangerous. If you, as caregiver, are aware of financial difficulties, you can seek financial assistance from government or community agencies on behalf of your parent.

6. Frivolous purchasing: Elders sometimes get into the habit of making unnecessary, even unwise, purchases. They might buy from QVC, catalogs, telemarketers, direct mail pitches, or on the Internet. The parent doesn't tell the caregiver in fear that their purchases will be restricted and financial independence taken away. As caregiver, keep an eye out for new items, and even strange merchandise. If you suspect your parent is making unwise purchases, check credit card statements and checkbooks. Sound sneaky? Perhaps, but as a caregiver, financial responsibility comes with the territory.

7. Gambling: "Many elders gamble out of boredom, to fill free time," Ladew says. The casinos know this, and often target elders on television, radio, the Internet and direct mail. The gambling houses offer "senior special" meal prices to draw the parent to the slots and game tables. However, gambling can quickly get out of control and lead to financial troubles.

8. Financial abuse: "A family member, friend or helper may be raiding your parent's financial assets, checkbook or credit cards. Your parent might not even be aware this is happening. If the elder is aware, he or she may not tell you for fear that you think they can no longer manage finances." Similar to elder abuse, financial abuse is a crime. And because most parents withhold the facts from their caregivers, the crooks continue stealing, without penalties or jail terms.

9. Elder abuse: "Elder abuse may be caused by family members, neighbors or even paid helpers. Each event is a criminal act, but the parent may be concerned that telling you may cause a major rift in family," says Ladew. Recent studies report that less than one-in-seven incidents of physical elder abuse are revealed to caregivers; therefore, the abusers walk free and clear.

10. Alcohol or drug abuse: "Your parent may be drinking heavily, using illegal drugs, or abusing prescription medications. This is extremely dangerous, as alcohol or drug use can conflict with other medications as well as quickly become an addiction." Keep your eye out for changes in mood or personality, empty bottles of wine, or frequent trips to the pharmacy. If you suspect abuse, address the issues with your parent in a non-confrontational way. Or, talk to your parent's doctor for advice.

In an ideal world, we'd all have open and honest communication with our elders, and secrets would be out of the question. In truth, this often isn't the case.

At some point, family must talk about end of life issues with their aging parents. The most important step is to try and develop open communication. Be gentle and supportive, hoping for an honest talk. Don't judge, don't preach, don't accuse and don't dictate. The goal should be to form a partnership with your parent. Emphasize that you don't want to take things away from them, but rather enhance their life and make it easier. Some conversation starters:

  • Share an article or magazine story with them about the topic.
  • Ask permission to talk about the topic with them.
  • Solicit support from siblings before the meeting.
  • Ask, ‘Were you involved in handling your parents' affairs?" "How did you do it?"

If your parent does not cooperate, you might be forced to do some detective work. Keep a close eye on the checkbook, look for an abundance of new purchases, watch for physical injury such as bruises or limping, track how much medicine is being taken and how often prescriptions are being re-filled.

Another option is to ask the family doctor to speak with your parent. Many people are more comfortable revealing their fears and weaknesses with professional experts than with family members.

In the end, you as a caregiver can be as helpful as your parent will allow; but realize they must take responsibility for their actions.


Marilyn Sharbach Ladew is a nationally renowned expert in senior concerns, health and caregiving. She owned a business that enabled seniors to stay in their homes and has counseled families through Hospice, hospital programs, and senior services.

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8 Comments


Thanks for posting this -- I had to repost on my blog...very interesting: I read this article and couldn’t help but think of how all sorts of technology (remote monitoring like GrandCare, Internet technology, etc) could help out with these 10 “secrets” shared in the story. Of course, technology is only one piece to the puzzle, but nonetheless, I think we are not quite at the point where technology comes right to mind when we are thinking about how to care for a loved one. It’s scary to think about caring for an aging parent and we have not grown up using technology in this way. It’s relatively new. Many of us have cared for children using all kinds of technologies (baby monitor, video monitor, bed monitor to detect SIDS, etc), but we don’t think to apply this to an obviously similar need among our aging parents. I get it, though, because although the caregiving process and stress can be similar to taking care of a child, it’s also a completely different beast when you consider that with children they grow more and more independent as you guide them to do more and more things on their own. With an aging loved one, the opposite will occur. It’s much easier to give more freedom, obviously, than taking it away. I can imagine that it would be difficult to be aging and have someone telling you that you cannot or shouldn’t do things anymore. Given this, we can’t be too surprised when a loved one may hide or cover up certain things. I even think about my own kids cleaning up a mess they make, BEFORE I see it to avoid punishment or having things be taken away. But how do we know when someone hides something? And what if it’s something that could be unsafe, unhealthy or potentially life-threatening? What steps could we or should we take to “get to the bottom” of things? How can we more closely monitor? How do we confront? I don’t know that there is an easy answer. I remember my parents having to “take away the keys” from my Grandpa. That was a hard day and it took him a while to get used to the loss of independence. It was the right thing to do (He was not even noticing if I passed him on the road and was repeatedly honking and wildly waving), but extremely difficult while obviously responsible…

The article lists 10 common things that people tend to “hide” or not reveal to those helping care for them. I started to think, are any of these things that could be helped with perhaps a telehealth wellness assessment system or perhaps a SKYPE visit or maybe a remote activity of daily living monitoring system. Below is the list and the ways that I believe technology could be of assistance…

1. Falls – - Technology can detect the actual fall itself, but even if they are not wearing anything…many technologies like GrandCare could alert a family member if they were not “up and about” as usual.
2. Pain – - So obviously technology can’t tell you WHAT they are feeling emotionally or physically, but can give you hints on it. For example, you could have SKYPE visits with a loved one and “see” how they are doing. Systems like GrandCare also have touch-based assessments that the loved one can fill out every day. People tend to be more comfortable telling a machine how they are feeling, versus “complaining” to their family. It can be a helpful resource and indicate if pain levels are there, swelling, happiness, etc. Activity Systems like GrandCare could also portray if a person was moving less than usual, which might be a good indication of a potential problem or pain.
3. Dizziness – - can be caused by many things such as low blood pressure or medication noncompliance…these things can all be remotely monitored by a tele-wellness system like GrandCare. GrandCare has several wireless, bluetooth enabled blood pressure, weight scale, pulseox, glucometer devices that can indicate a potential wellness issue. The medication dispenser could send out an alert if the meds were not accessed.
4, 5, & 6. Money Shortages, Frivolous Purchasing, Financial Abuse – - I put these together because I think they can be managed together. Technology is of great assistance as caregivers can check bank accounts, checks and credit card statements online. Not to mention, one of GrandCare’s initial goals was to help mitigate tele-marketing scams (the co-founder’s mother had an investment banker in Sun City West, AZ scam her, which gave a huge wake up to the entire family). GrandCare has a caller-ID sensor that can alert family members or primary caregivers of unusual, repeated incoming calls, etc. to help stop SCAMS!

7. Elder Abuse – - there are several factors to take into account with elder abuse. It can be very difficult to diagnose this, but technology systems in place can help. Technology can play a big role when determining neglect (caregiver is NOT arriving when they should be, patient is not being “turned”, fridge is NOT being accessed during mealtime, etc). SKYPE is a great way to “see” into the home and look into a loved one’s eyes to really determine what might be happening…

8. Auto Accidents or Driving Infractions – - Although technology won’t play much of a role with determining whether or not a loved one has gotten a ticket or driving infraction, it can share information about how your loved one is behaving in general. Is he/she wandering (could be indicative of sundowners, dementia or even seizures), is he/she complying with medications, eating regularly, normal vitals? sleeping well? All of these factors can help to give a bigger picture idea of what’s happening behind closed doors and allow family members to make educated, healthier and smarter decisions for a loved one.

9. Alcohol or Drug Abuse – - Again, technology can really give a better overall indication that all is well or not well at home. Eating/sleeping patterns, vitals, daily behaviors can help to give an educated view on what might be happening in a loved one’s life. In severe cases, it could be possible to use a monitoring system to monitor access to the liquor cabinet.

10. Gambling – - technology can help to assess when a loved one leaves the home and if they have their GPS enabled Cell phone, shoes or watch, a worried caregiver could be notified if they leave a designated perimeter (mostly used for wandering, dementia, etc)

Granted, there are many other (additional) ways to detect and mitigate these 10 secrets, but I wanted to note that there are some assistive technology solutions out there that are designed to enable a caregiver (call it a super caregiver) to become more aware (even if they don’t live close by) of how a loved one is doing. Because after all, that’s what we all desire – for our loved one to be safe, be able to stay home (if that’s where he/she would like to be), stay virtually connected/socialized and continue to go about normal daily activities. These technologies were created so those four things could easily, instantaneously happen!
I wish I could help you. I have the same problem except I never got to the point of being able to set up the electronic accounts. My 90 year old mother who is still quite functional in many ways "accused" me of "cheating" her at the point of preparing the accounts so I could make computer transfers so I stopped midstream and now who knows how she is paying anything if anything at all?? I stepped in only after she accused my younger and trustworthy sister of "stealing" which devastated us all. I, being the oldest was the last hope and now I too stand accused so I am sure the identify theft I caught earlier of over $6,000 continues. I am looking forward to reading the advice given to you because my mother has shut each of her only four daughters who care and love her unconditionally completely out of her life....hanging up when we call or very cold and brief uninviting us when we tell her we are coming to visit. I never dreamed my mother would "reject" each of us so vehemently given the loving care she used to give us all. It is very painful and dangerous because we all know she needs our "assistance and support" however she refuses to allow us into her life and when we "force" ourselves in she rants and raves to the extent others in her senior housing think we are causing her emotional harm. We've approached her doctor who "tried" to administer a dementia test at which point she went into a rage and refuses his care any longer. We feel helpless "watching her decline" and being so vunerable to outsiders but feel at a lost over next steps so I anxiously await a response to your question??
Umm, there are more secrets.

1. They have bought long term health care insurance with some fine riders, but they are afraid for anyone to know because it might mean off to the assisted living or nursing home they go when they have been paying through the nose for riders like home health care and home builder care. Instead they hire someone cheap like my mom and step-dad did followed by the loss of money due to forgery which at first they did not want to believe.

2. Hiding past due taxes which they were great at from 2004 until a newer helper informed me of an IRS letter in 2009.

3. Hiding how sloppy their handling of bills are.

Step-siblings will sometimes hide these things from others as well.

Siblings like my mom's sister will not intervene by telling an adult child that taxes are not being paid which they then excuse as not being their place. Dam, my aunt sure is dumb!

These are the only ones which come to mind from my own experience which may or may not be like others, but this list of 10 does not apply.