As our parents age, it’s not uncommon for them to start denying that they’re getting older. They might downplay their aches and pains, or brush off concerns about their health and well-being.
While it’s natural for older adults to want to stay independent for as long as possible and in control of their own decisions, this denial can be problematic – both for them and for us, their family caregivers.
It can be very frustrating for caregivers and family members when their senior parent is in denial. Especially when it’s clear to everyone else how much assistance they really do need.
Truth is, these days we are bombarded with “anti-aging” this and that. So it’s no wonder our parents might be in denial about getting older.
They see ads on TV and in magazines telling them they can stay young forever – if they just buy the right product or cream.
We deny aging in so many ways. Our society is so wrapped up in cosmetic surgery miracles, hair alterations, toupees and transplant options, sexual performance enhancers and the like that we’ve become a culture that no longer acknowledges aging or even understands how to identify the aging process when it’s happening right under our noses…Charles Puchta, founder and principal of Aging America Resources
We might try to talk to them about it, but they just won’t listen. They might even get angry or defensive when we bring up the subject.
There are a few possible reasons why your aging parent might be in denial. They may be afraid of losing their independence, or they may not want to burden their family with their problems.
We’ll talk more about the reasons later on in this article.
Whatever the reason, it’s important to try to understand where they’re coming from and find a way to help them face the reality of their aging process.
One way to do this is to start by gently broaching the subject. Talk about your concerns in a non-threatening way, and let them know that you’re there to support them.
Whether it’s in person or via a phone call, it’s important to talk.
If they’re still resistant, you may need to discuss it in a family meeting. Or get help from a third party such as a support group or even professionals like a geriatric care manager or a social worker.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to your aging parent to make the decision to accept help and face their declining abilities. Of course, as long as they are cognitively intact.
Table of Contents
What Is Denial?
Denial is defined as “a defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by refusal to believe that the problem exists.” (source: responsibility.com)
In other words, it’s a way for older people to avoid reality by pretending that a problem doesn’t exist. (This is true for any age group.)
A 10-year longitudinal study of the age-identities of persons 70 and older revealed that many rejected the possibility that they were, in fact, old.National Library of Medicine
If we were all honest with ourselves, I do believe there’s a good chance that many of us would have trouble admitting that we’re getting old and need help. It’s just human nature. At least that’s my opinion.
Why Do Seniors Deny Their Aging?
I remember a story that Robin shared with me about her father. I think he was 92 at the time and her mother had passed away.
Robin was trying to get her father to move to an assisted living facility and his reason for not moving was that he did not want to be around all those old people.
He did not or did not want to see himself as “old”.
Sadly, this is a common scenario. Whether it is denial or simply wanting to maintain their independence, many seniors do not want to admit that they are getting older and may need help.
Some Reasons Why Seniors Deny They Are Aging
I often say that getting older is not for the faint of heart. My own husband was very scared of aging so I know the fear is real.
In my opinion, denial of aging is mostly about fear.
Here are some reasons why you or your elderly parent may be in denial.
Change in general is intimidating and induces fear, but changes to your own body and personal circumstances can be even scarier. This is why aging can be so scary.jcnh.org
- For some, it’s simply a coping mechanism to deal with the fact that they’re getting older. They may feel like they’re not ready to face the reality of their situation and would rather pretend that everything is okay.
- Others may deny their aging because they don’t want to burden their family and friends with their problems.
- Still others may be in denial because they don’t want to face the end of their life.
- Many fear the loss of independence. Not being able to do tasks of daily living, driving, caring for their home, etc.
- My husband feared his deteriorating health and possibly living with pain (from arthritis).
- There are, of course, some who fear they will outlive their money.
- Many fear being alone, loss of friends and family.
Of course, if the senior is suffering from an illness causing cognitive decline such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, this may also contribute to their denial.
Whatever the reason, denial can have serious consequences if it’s not addressed early on. Some seniors may withdraw from social activities and become isolated, which can lead to depression and anxiety.
Others may refuse to take medication or go to doctors’ appointments, which can lead to health problems down the road.
And still others may become belligerent or combative when confronted with the reality of their situation, which can put a strain on relationships with family and friends.
How Can You Tell If Your Parent Is In Denial About Their Aging?
The primary caregiver may be the one who first notices that something is wrong. They may notice that their parent is having more difficulty with everyday tasks, or they may start to seem more forgetful.
If you are the primary caregiver, it can be difficult to watch your parent struggle and not be able to do anything to help. You want to give them the best care, but that can be almost impossible if they fight you every inch of the way.
If you’re worried that your parent is in denial about their aging, here are some signs to look out for.
1. They’re resistant to changes in their routine.
As we get older, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be flexible. Our bodies change and we may need to adjust our routines accordingly.
If your parent is resistant to any changes in their routine, it may be a sign that they’re in denial about their aging. They may not want to admit that they can’t do things the way they used to.
2. They’re not taking care of themselves like they used to.
Self-care is important at any age, but it’s especially important as we get older. As our body changes, we need to pay more attention to it.
If you notice that your parent isn’t taking care of themselves like they used to – for example, they’re not eating as well or taking care of their hygiene – it may be a sign that they’re in denial about their aging.
3. They’re not accepting help from others.
It’s okay to need help as we get older – in fact, it’s normal! But some of us have a hard time accepting help from others.
If your parent is refusing help from you or anyone else, it may be a sign that they’re in denial about their aging.
They may not want to admit that they need help with day-to-day tasks or that they can’t do everything on their own anymore.
Of course, if they’ve been stubborn their whole lives, this behavior usually amplifies as they get older.
4. They refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed.
Even if you point out specific changes in their behavior or appearance, they will insist that everything is the same as it always has been. They may become angry or defensive if you try to talk to them about it.
5. They’re not interested in talking about their health.
When you ask how they’re feeling, they brush off your concerns and say that they’re fine. They may be reluctant to go to doctor’s appointments or other health care provider because they don’t want to hear what the professionals have to say.
6. They’re trying to do too much.
Even though they may not be able to do things like they used to, they refuse to slow down or cut back on their activities. This can lead to them becoming exhausted and frazzled, which can further decline their health.
This can also cause an injury.
A friend of mine’s father insisted on weeding his yard. He fell in the process and that was the beginning of his decline.
If you notice any of these signs in your parent, it’s possible that they’re in denial about their aging.
This can be difficult for both them and you, but try to have an open and honest conversation with them about how you’re feeling and what you’ve noticed.
It’s a good idea to try to encourage them to accept help and make any necessary changes in their routine so that they can age gracefully and safely.
What Are The Consequences Of Denial?
“Denial” is more than just a river in Egypt. It’s also a defense mechanism our minds use to protect us from things we don’t want to believe or deal with. In some cases, denial can be helpful.
But when it comes to facing the realities of aging, denial can have some very real consequences.
Here are four of the most significant ones.
1. Denial can lead to isolation and loneliness.
One of the most common consequences of denial is social isolation.
When we deny that we’re getting older, we may start turning down invitations to social events, stop keeping in touch with friends, and generally withdraw from the world around us.
This can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression, which only compounds the negative effects of aging.
2. Denial can prevent us from getting the care and assistance we need.
Another consequence of denial is that it prevents us from getting the care and assistance we need as we age.
When we deny that we’re getting older, we’re less likely to seek out help with tasks like grocery shopping, transportation, housekeeping, and personal care.
This can lead to a decline in our physical and mental health, as well as our overall quality of life.
3. Denial can make us more vulnerable to scams and fraud.
As we age, we become more vulnerable to scams and fraud.
This is because scammers target seniors specifically because they know that many seniors are in denial about their age and their ability to defend themselves against such schemes.
If you’re in denial about your age, you may be more likely to fall victim to a scammer’s scheme – and you may be less likely to report it if it does happen.
4. Denial can shorten our life expectancy.
Finally, denial can actually shorten our life expectancy.
Studies have shown that seniors who deny their age are more likely to die sooner than those who accept their age and take steps to stay healthy as they get older.
Ten studies showed that when older persons assimilate negative age stereotypes from the culture, they have a shorter life expectancy. Studies in multiple countries including Australia, Germany, and China made this survival finding, which Levy originally identified in previous research.futurity.org
So, if you want to live a long and healthy life, it’s important to face up to the realities of aging – denial won’t do you any favors in the long run.
How Can You Help A Parent Who Is In Denial?
Family caregivers often face challenges when it comes to assisting their elderly loved ones. One common challenge is helping a parent who is in denial about their declining health.
The first step is to try to understand why the person is in denial. We spoke about that earlier in this article but to summarize it…
- Fear of what will happen if they face the problem
- Fear of acknowledging a serious health condition
- Anxiety about change
- A desire to protect themselves from pain
- A need to feel in control
Once you understand the reasons behind the denial, you can begin to approach the person in a way that is more likely to be successful.
The good news is that there are some possible solutions that you can use to help a senior parent who is in denial.
Have The Talk
The first step is to try to have honest and open conversations with your parent about their health. It can be difficult to broach the subject, but it’s important to remember that you’re doing this out of love and concern.
Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to listen and be there for a parent in order for them to realize that they need help.
First and foremost know that there are many people in a similar situation.
If you’re not sure how to start, try saying something like, “I’ve been noticing that you’ve been having a hard time lately. I just want to talk to you about what’s going on and see how I can help.“
From there, you can begin to explore the option of getting your parent professional help. It’s important to be patient and understanding, but ultimately it’s up to your parent to make the decision to seek assistance.
Let them know that you are coming from a place of love.
Avoid Being Critical
If the person feels like they are being criticized, they are likely to become defensive and less likely to listen.
Instead, try to focus on the behavior that is causing concern. For example, you might say something like, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been forgetting to take your medication recently. I’m just worried about your health.“
Be Prepared for Resistance
It’s important to be prepared for resistance when having this conversation. If your parent is in denial about their declining abilities they may not want to admit that they need help.
Try to be understanding and respectful. It may be helpful to remind them that you are just trying to help and that you are not trying to take away their independence.
You might also want to consider enlisting the help of a professional, such as a geriatric care manager, social worker or elder mediator who can help assess your parent’s needs and create a care plan.
If possible, I would recommend to talk to your parents about speaking with an elder law attorney and a financial advisor about getting legal matters in order (power of attorney, will and trust, etc.)
See The Doctor
One way to help a parent who is in denial is to encourage them to see a doctor.
Parents may be reluctant to see a doctor because they do not want to hear bad news. However, it is important for parents to have regular checkups so that any health concerns can be identified and treated early.
You can offer to make an appointment for your parent or go with them to the appointment.
You can use the doctor’s report as evidence to show your parent that they are not as young as they used to be and that they need to take care of their health.
Another way you can help a parent who is in denial is by providing support and assistance. You may need to do things such as helping around the house, running errands, or providing transportation.
This assistance can help your parent maintain their independence and preserve their quality of life.
Encourage Positive Thinking
If the person is focused on negative thoughts, they may find it harder to face up to the problem. Try to encourage positive thinking instead.
You can do this by talking about all the good things in their life, such as grandchildren, friends, and hobbies.
Help Them Take Small Steps
Rather than trying to get the person to do something big all at once, it may be easier to help them take small steps.
For example, if your parent is in denial about their vision problems, you could start by taking them to get their vision checked.
Once they realize that they need glasses or contact lenses, they may be more open to other changes that need to be made.
You can also help them make small changes in their daily routine, such as getting up and going to bed at the same time each day or eating regular meals. These changes can help your parent feel more in control of their life and may make it easier for them to accept other changes.
You can also help by being understanding and patient. It can be difficult for elderly parents to accept that they are not as independent as they used to be.
Be prepared to listen to your parent’s concerns and answer any questions they may have. Try not to get frustrated if your parent refuses your help or becomes angry.
Remember that this is a difficult adjustment for them and they may not be able to express their feelings in a constructive way.
Get Some Help
If your parent is resistant to the idea of getting help, you might want to consider hiring in-home care. In-home care can provide help with daily tasks, personal care needs, provide support without being overly intrusive.
Home care workers can help with things like light housekeeping, cooking, errands, and bathing – which can take a load off of both you and your parent.
Seek Help From A Counselor
Finally, if you’re still struggling to get through to your parent, you might want to consult with a doctor or other professional who can offer impartial advice.
Sometimes, hearing it from a medical professional can be the wake-up call that a parent needs in order to accept help.
How Do You Deal With The Decline Of A Parent?
As our parents age, it’s inevitable that they will begin to decline in physical and mental health. This can be a difficult thing to witness and deal with, but there are some steps you can take to make the situation easier for everyone involved.
Here are some tips on how to handle the decline of a parent.
The first thing you need to do is accept that decline is a natural part of aging. It’s important to have realistic expectations about what your parent(s) are capable of and what they can no longer do.
This doesn’t mean that you should give up on them or write them off, but it does mean that you need to be realistic about their limitations.
Take Care Of Yourself
Next, you need to take care of your own health, both physically and emotionally. This is a difficult time for everyone involved, and it’s important that you take care of yourself so you can be there for your parent(s).
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising regularly. It’s also important to find someone to talk to about what you’re going through.
A therapist or counselor can be a great resource if you’re struggling to cope with the situation.
Finally, be patient and make sure you’re communicating with your parent(s) regularly. They may have some memory loss or be unable to communicate as well as they used to, but they still deserve your respect and patience.
Try to have regular conversations with them, even if they’re short. Ask them about their day-to-day lives and how they’re feeling.
Letting them know that you’re there for them can make all the difference in the world.
Be Prepared for the Worst
Although it’s impossible to predict exactly how a parent’s decline will progress, it’s important to be prepared for the worst. This means having those tough conversations about end-of-life care, Durable Powers of Attorney, and living wills.
It also means being honest with yourself about your own ability to care for an aging or sick parent. If you’re honest about your limitations, you can seek out outside help before things get too overwhelming.
Make the Most of Good Days
There will still be good days when your parents are lucid and present and able to enjoy life. These days should be cherished, because they won’t last forever.
On good days, take the time to talk, laugh, and create new memories together. These memories will sustain you on the tough days ahead.
Seek Out Support Groups
When dealing with the decline of a parent, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are plenty of other people in the same shoes, and talking to them can help you to feel less isolated and alone.
There are many different types of support groups available; your local hospitals or community centers should be able to point you in the right direction.
Dealing with the decline of a parent can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that it’s a natural part of aging.
Be patient, take care of yourself, and stay in communication with your parent(s). These things will help make the situation easier for everyone involved.
Some Helpful Resources
I do hope that this article and these resources can help you and your senior parents to deal with aging. It’s something we all have to go through, so let’s go through it the best that we can.