Help Aging Parents: Confident People Can Become Intimidated When It Comes To Speaking With Doctors

Not Wanting to Upset The Doctor
…when he/she is their–or our–lifeline 

Last Tuesday’s NY Times, Science Times Health page devoted 2 articles–almost an entire page to–“The Trouble With ‘Doctor Knows Best.'” The second article, written by Dr. Pauline Chen calls attention to the fact that a friend, “a brilliant and accomplished academic in her 70’s” didn’t feel comfortable speaking with her doctor who was “generally warm and caring.” She, however, perceived him as too busy, uninterested in what she was feeling or wanted to say and she didn’t want him to think she was questioning his judgment and didn’t want to upset him or have him angry at her.

Efforts are–and evidently have been–made for over a generation, according to this piece, to get patients and doctors to work together to make decisions about treatment and care. And while the medical establishment and politicians evidently have been enthusiastic about the results, a recent study shows it hasn’t been satisfactory from patients’ perspectives.

The concern about one’s physician feeling certain conversations and questions may be taken as judgmental and may incur anger is no doubt on target. When our physician is our lifeline–and especially our parents’ lifeline–I think most of us tend to err on the side of diplomacy–thinking twice about what we say and how we say it.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Think about interactions with someone who has power, authority, dominance, control over our destiny–be it in the doctor’s office, the workplace, school or wherever.

Throughout my years of counseling high school students, we rehearsed little speeches–student to teacher–usually involving something “unfair” (often a grade, sometimes a reprimand, sometimes a misunderstanding).

I think the analogy is appropriate. Normally confident, successful students would feel powerless with the most warm and caring of teachers who, after all, held the key to their grade. In my highly competitive high school it translated to their college acceptance, their future–their life as they saw it.

Interestingly I think it was easier for me to successfully counsel and coach the kids and wait to get feedback that they did it right–which hopefully would empower them to successfully handle future sticky situations. (“Nothing succeeds like success,” they say).

Yet often when the parents jumped in first, fronting for their child,  it was triggered by their child’s emotions, compounded by their emotions. I recall in many cases the teachers were upset and let me know it.

And so I wonder:  Do we do better advocating for our parents in uncomfortable situations (possibly 2 layers of emotions) than they do advocating for themselves? Are we able to stand back emotionally and tactfully ask uncomfortable questions–or should someone we respect rehearse with us and empower us? Should we rehearse with and empower older parents?

To help parents (and ourselves) age well, there’s no question that sometimes uncomfortable conversations with physicians are necessary. The key is getting to the point where we feel justified and empowered to have those conversations.

Click for reasons it makes sense to accompany aging parents to doctors’ appointments.

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