Your aging parent may be keeping secrets from you. It may not constitute all-out lying, but they might be purposely withholding information that is important to their health, safety or general well-being. Sometimes, elderly parents hide things because they feel their independence slipping away or because they're embarrassed to ask for help. In some cases, Mom or Dad might be afraid of how their family will react. Sometimes, they simply don’t want assistance or don’t even recognize something as being dangerous or problematic.

Many elders cover up bruises, don’t tell anyone about falls or accidents, downplay money troubles, or even hide their alcohol use in the hopes that they can continue living independently. Each competent person has a right to make their own decisions—good and bad—about how they want to live. But when our aging loved ones keep secrets like these, they actually put themselves in danger, increasing the likelihood that they'll have to rely on others to care for them.

Since many seniors are keen on keeping these concerns to themselves, it’s up to family members to keep a watchful eye out for the signs that they may be experiencing any of the following medical, emotional or financial issues.

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10 Common Secrets Seniors Keep

  1. Falls 

    Falls are the leading cause of injury, hospital admissions and even death among the elderly population. It’s easy for a senior to cover up a fall, particularly if it doesn’t result in bruising or broken bones. Your parent may hide these accidents out of fear that you will try to get them to use a mobility aid like a wheelchair or walker and/or increase their supervision. The preservation of independence is of major importance to older adults, even at the risk of falling. Unfortunately, frequent falls and the resulting injuries are common instigating factors for moves to assisted living communities and nursing homes.
  2. Pain

    Some seniors seem to almost enjoy discussing their aches and pains with others to gain sympathy, but others tend to downplay their symptoms. Your parent may not tell you about new or increasing pain to keep you from worrying about their condition. They may not want to take more medications or be dragged to doctor’s appointments. Perhaps they may be afraid of receiving a new diagnosis. These concerns are understandable, but as a caregiver, you need to know about their pain levels so you can get them the proper medical treatment they need.
  3. Dizziness

    Dizziness can be caused by a few different medical issues, including low blood pressure and medication side effects. Although your parents may not want to alarm you, this is a potentially dangerous problem that must be addressed. Feeling unsteady and lightheaded can contribute to mishaps like falls and car accidents.
  4. Auto Accidents and Driving Infractions

    Seniors vehemently wish to retain the freedom and independence that driving provides. Therefore, if an older adult is in an accident or receives a driving violation, they'll often withhold this information out of fear that their family members will take away the car keys. A traffic citation or fender bender can be indicative of any number of health conditions, including worsening vision, mobility issues and changes in mental awareness.
  5. Money Shortages

    If a parent’s income and savings begin to dwindle, they may cut back on buying necessities like food and medications. Seniors who are facing financial difficulties can seek assistance from federal, state and local government programs as well as community initiatives.
  6. Frivolous Spending

    Elders sometimes get into the habit of making unnecessary, even unwise, purchases. They might frequently buy from television shopping channels, catalogs, telemarketers, direct mail pitches or the Internet. Parents hide these purchases out of fear that their spending will be restricted and their financial independence will be taken away. As a caregiver, keep an eye out for the appearance of new items and even strange merchandise. If you suspect Mom or Dad is making excessive purchases, check their credit card statements or checkbook. This may sound underhanded, but as a caregiver, financial planning comes with the territory.
  7. Gambling

    Many elders gamble out of boredom to fill their free time. The casinos know this and often target elders with advertising and marketing ploys on television, the radio, the Internet and via direct mail. Many gambling houses offer “senior special” meal prices to draw elders to play the slots and game tables. However, gambling can quickly get out of control and lead to serious financial troubles.
  8. Elder Abuse

    Elder abuse comes in many forms and can be perpetrated by family members, neighbors or even paid helpers. If a senior is being abused or neglected by someone close to them, it’s likely that they will not report it to avoid repercussions like causing a major rift in the family. Recent studies estimate that less than one in seven incidents of physical elder abuse are revealed to caregivers.
  9. Financial Abuse

    Although it is reprehensible, it isn’t uncommon for a family member, friend or hired caregiver to help themselves to a senior’s funds. Your parent might not even be aware this is happening, but if they are, they may not tell you about it because they want to retain control of their finances. Financial abuse is a type of elder abuse and it is a crime. Without any intervention, the crooks can continue stealing and your parents may wind up financially devastated.
  10. Alcohol or Drug Abuse

    Some seniors may begin to drink more, use drugs or abuse their prescription medications. This is extremely dangerous, as alcohol and both legal and illegal drugs can interact with prescribed medications and even lead to addiction. Keep your eye out for changes in mood or personality, empty alcohol or medication bottles, or frequent trips to the pharmacy. If you suspect abuse, address the issues with your parent in a non-confrontational way. Contacting their doctor for advice may be helpful as well.

How to Address a Parent’s “Secrets”

Family members must be hypervigilant to detect any issues their aging parents may not want to share. It’s important to try to develop open communication from the very beginning, but not every family is capable of having candid discussions. If you have a hunch that something is amiss, address it immediately but be gentle and supportive. Don’t judge, preach, accuse or dictate. The goal is to form an alliance with your parent. Emphasize that your goals are the same as theirs: ensuring their safety and quality of life and helping them maintain their independence.

Beginning these conversations can be awkward, but some of the following pointers will help:

  • Share an article or magazine story with them about the topic you wish to discuss.
  • Be straightforward and simply ask permission to talk about the topic with them.
  • Solicit support from siblings, their doctor, a religious leader or another person your parent respects to facilitate the conversation.
  • Ask them if they had any experiences helping their own parents or grandparents as they aged.

If your parent does not cooperate, you might be forced to do some detective work. In-person visits can help you keep a close eye on their living situation, their health and safety, and potentially their financial status. Another option is to ask the family doctor to speak with your parent. Many elders are more comfortable discussing issues and concerns with professionals than with close family members.

In the end, you can only be as helpful and involved as your parents will allow you to be. If they are of sound mind, then they are free to make poor decisions and must take responsibility for their own actions. Just be aware that some of the above “secrets” can point to changes in judgement and mental capacity. If you believe that Mom or Dad is no longer capable of making rational decisions about their own care and money, it is important to intervene. Adult protective services and your local Area Agency on Aging can help get vulnerable seniors the support they need.