“Mommy, I think I have a cavity.”
There are certainly worse things to hear from your nine-year-old daughter, but it still wasn’t a great way to start the day.
So I grabbed my phone, turned on the flashlight, and looked inside Fiona’s mouth.
Oh my god! It was a giant crevasse, right there in one of her bottom teeth.
Once I got over my shock, I asked her why she hadn’t told me about it sooner. Her answer? “Because I didn’t want you to do anything about it.”
Clearly, our trip to the dentist last year — during which she got a shot of Novocain and a tooth pulled — was still top of mind. I guess I couldn’t really blame her for keeping it to herself as long as she did. Her 9-year-old logic was sound.
Even so, I made a vow to spend more time supervising her brushing and reminded Fiona that unless she tells me about things that are hurting, I can’t really help her (and things usually get worse).
Parents Don’t Want to be Parented
When it comes to our kids, we have the freedom to make rules, set boundaries, and supervise their daily activities — all in the name of raising them properly.
It doesn’t work that way with our parents. They often feel offended if told what they can and cannot do, especially by their own children.
For example, years ago, before her passing, Kristine’s mom had fallen several times in the span of a couple of weeks. It was only after the fifth fall, after her mom had been stranded on the floor alone for several hours, when she finally opened up about how serious her situation was becoming.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Older adults are often reluctant to confide in their children regarding falls, pain, or cognitive impairment.
The reasons why are varied and may include concerns with loss of independence, fear of being “put” in a nursing home, not wanting to face the physical and mental realities of needing some support, and more.
A Difficult Conversation
Whatever is behind an older adult’s reluctance to share, it’s critical that we don’t ignore what may be going on. These conversations are difficult, but important.
Here is a simple approach that we recommend:
#1. Step back and cool down.
Many times, when we first learn of what a parent has been doing or experiencing, we are shocked. “What, you stood on a folding chair to change a lightbulb?!”
Your impulse may be to react in the moment, but anger and scolding will only make the older person defensive. So try and bite your tongue and take a few minutes (or hours).
#2. Reapproach the topic in a more comfortable space.
You’ll have much better results if you can wait until the two of you are doing something pleasant together — drinking tea, sorting laundry, going through the mail, etc.
Separating the conversation from the event will help both you and your parent to think more clearly and constructively.
#3. Come from the heart.
It’s scary when we feel that our parents are putting themselves in harm’s way. But if you can express your concern with love, rather than judgement, you are much more likely to get your message across:
“Mom, these falls could have been a lot worse. You are lucky you didn’t break something. I want you to feel comfortable telling me when you need some help.”
#4. Diffuse the anxiety.
Whether you are nine years old or 90, fear of the unknown can keep people in denial.
So let your parent know that you do not intend to take away their freedom or lessen their independence. You are simply concerned for their well-being and to do that, you need to be kept aware of what’s going on.
#5. Choose the right messenger.
Family dynamics are a funny thing. Often, one family member may be particularly successful in having these types of uncomfortable conversations.
So, before you dive right in with everyone telling mom what she needs to do or not do, think about who in the family might be the most capable of successfully having a serious, but quiet and supportive conversation.
Our Roles Are Changing
Part of caring for the older adults in our lives involves recognizing that our respective roles are shifting.
And while we may be fully ready and willing to step up and “manage things,” keep in mind that our parents may be less ready and willing to turn over some of that control.
Honest, but supportive and reassuring conversations will go a long way in keeping our parents safe and happy as they age.