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.