Aging Parents’ Secrets: Tips for Getting Parents to Disclose Them–A Psychiatrist Weighs In

Aging parents’ secrets.  Paving the way for them to share with us.

“If parents  keep secrets, they may well feel guilt about it,” according to Dr. Bud, our Senior Advisor psychiatrist.   Confiding in someone can rid them of guilty feelings–be it someone outside the family or a family member if parents feel the latter is safe and “coming clean” won’t result in forced moving to assisted living, being car-less, or worse.

In my July 24th post we learn that an 88-year-old woman suffered numerous falls (without telling supportive family members) and ultimately a broken hip. All caused by poor balance that a device in her shoe would have easily corrected. We learned some of the reasons in that post.

Below are tips to encourage secret sharing:

Mindset: think “tuning in to the age–to the stage in life–to the degree of their concern and our concern; realizing maybe it’s also aging parents’ concern, but they don’t want to talk about it,” suggests Dr. Bud.

Next look for opportunities–perhaps in other people— that “open the door” for discussing commonly-held senior secrets. Simply using anecdotes about others can convey our empathy, compassion and our aversion to quick judgments and knee-jerk reactions.

1. Hearing about someone: “I saw your friend, Edith, the other day. She’s now using a walker.  It must be really tough on Edith…..”
Acknowledging difficult dilemmas
2.  Information: “Jim called me this morning. Said he didn’t sleep well last night.  He made someone a promise it’s not correct to keep, and it’s bothering him because it’s something the family needs to know–it involves an older person’s well-being. He’s really in a tough spot.” 
Caring Concern

3.  Personalizing an Observation: I was getting out of the car. An older woman–older than you, Mom, fell then got herself up; and I wondered–is she going to tell someone or is she afraid? And I thought about you and how things happen, and would you be able to tell me if it were you?

When we construct these scenarios, it helps aging parents understand not only their own fears but our sensitivity to them. And when older people can confide secrets, they get through the fear, guilt or feelings of foolishness (can acknowledge their fault if they did something stupid–ie. lost something important).

Dr. Bud acknowledges that it’s OK to tell a little white lie by making up a story as in the above examples. Rationale: It hurts no one and can lead to conversations that significantly affect older people’s well being.

Dr. Bud also says acknowledging fear is helpful. There are probably many opportunities to do this.  Here’s another example:

Aging parents’ friends are no doubt experiencing issues that could necessitate giving up their homes, their cars or making other significant changes.  This can reinforce parents’ worse fears about losing independence.

Hearing about parents’ friends’ issues presents an opportunity to chime in with something like: If the doctor recommended it, we would have to listen to his/her reasons before making a judgment and also see what others recommend–which could involve getting a second opinion. Did anyone think about that?

Hopefully in our efforts to help parents age well some of these anecdotes demonstrate our understanding and empathy–thus enabling parents to feel safe sharing secrets.

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