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 are 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. Here are the most common ‘secrets’.
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. Unfortunately, frequent falls and the resulting injuries are common instigating factors for moves to assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities.
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. As their son or daughter, you need to make sure they talk to their doctor so they can get the proper medical treatment they need.
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 serious and dangerous problem that needs to be addressed. Feeling unsteady and lightheaded can contribute to mishaps like falls and car accidents.
- Auto Accidents and Driving Infractions
Seniors vehemently wish to retain the freedom and independence that driving provides. Therefore, if Mom or Dad is in an accident or receives a driving violation, they 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.
- 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.
- 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. They don’t want to tell their children for fear that their spending will be restricted and their financial independence will be taken away. If you suspect Mom or Dad is making excessive purchases, check their credit card statements or checkbook.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 conflict 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”
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 ideas can help give you a starting point:
- 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 parent 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 judgment 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.