How to Talk to Your Parent’s Doctor
Over the years, Amy Goyer has had a lot of experience talking to her parents’ doctors and taking them to appointments.
Goyer’s mother and father have always been grateful she has wanted to be involved with their care. But there are many parents who are less enthusiastic — downright antagonistic — when their adult child asks to go to appointments or talk to their doctor. “Stop butting in, I’m fine!” they say. They may not be fine, though. They may be missing medication, “forgetting” to report symptoms or conditions, or start to fail in other ways.
When do you persist and when do you let it go? Is there any way around it if they don’t want you to speak with their physician? (Of course, if they are not capable of advocating for themselves because of a cognitive issue, someone, if it’s not you, needs to step in.)
Understanding Your Parent
Experts say that if you understand and acknowledge a parent’s perspective, they’re more likely to see that you’re not trying to control them or become their parent. Something like this can go a long way: “We want you to maintain your independence but also make sure there is no risk and that you are getting the best possible care. These are your decisions but we really want to help you.”
“Treating parents like children only reinforces the sense that they’re losing status, control and independence,” says Carol Levine. She is co-author of “The Family Caregiver Guide to Doctor Visits” and Director of the Families and Health Care Project at United Hospital Fund. Plus, how would you like it?
“I’ve always been clear that I’m at the doctors’ to advocate and care for Dad and Mom, not to take over their lives,” says Goyer, author of “Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving” and an AARP caregiving expert.
Goyer also conveys that message to their physicians. “It’s a pet peeve of mine that many doctors will ignore older or ill people if a caregiver is in the room and only talk to us,” she says. When the doctor is not on board? Time to switch to someone who is.
Dr. Heather Whitson, a geriatrician and researcher at the Duke University Aging Center, says adult children, family, and professionals need to have an “all-working-together-to-keep-Mom-or-Dad-well” mentality.
“I encourage the patient to think of themselves as the CEO of the health team. As the doctor, I’m a member and so may be the home health aide or the family or a geriatric care manager,” says Whitson. “I welcome the input of others. A broader support network is always a good thing.”
Critical Information to Talk to Your Parent’s Doctor
Ask your parents to sign the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) form at doctors’ offices or hospitals. It gives health care professionals permission to share medical information about your parent with you. Some doctors will divulge information if the patient gives oral approval, but having the HIPAA form ensures you’ll get answers. While you’re at it, make sure Dad has filled out a health care power of attorney in case he becomes cognitively or physically unable to make decisions for himself and an advance directive regarding end of life care.
Sometimes parents on the fence about kids’ involvement can be convinced it’s a good idea if they have a health care power of attorney. You could make the argument that it’s important to be in the loop now about their health and their preferences, just in case.
Even if your parent won’t sign the HIPAA form or give the doctor the go-ahead to speak with you, you can still share your concerns, either on the phone or by email. But, without the HIPAA form, the doctor won’t be able to discuss the patient’s care with you. Whitson prefers adult children to email rather than call. It provides a written record and reminds her to bring up the issue directly with the patient.
When Mom Says “No”
Think about why your parent is resisting. Might Dad be self-conscious and not want you in the room during the exam? That’s why there are waiting rooms! You don’t need to be there for every minute of the visit. However, you may want a little private time with the physician to discuss concerns or something your dad may find too embarrassing to mention (incontinence, perhaps?).
If you think it’s important that you have access to the doctor, persist. Try:
“I respect and support your privacy and independence. I only want to be involved because I love you and want you to get the best care possible.” Clearly, if it’s a safety or life or death issue, “you have to do what you have to do,” says Levine.
Being Involved in Your Parent’s Care
When there is more than one son or daughter it makes sense to designate one person in the family who will communicate with the physician or nurse. That point person can fill in the rest of the siblings.
Before the visit, do a verbal dry run. “How about if we talk to the doctor together, then I’ll step out and talk to her, then you can have time with her yourself, then we’ll all get back together briefly?” If your parent doesn’t want you to have time without them, then respect their decision. You can bring up the issue with Mom in the room or email the physician in advance. Decide together what questions you want to ask and who will ask them. Let Mom or Dad take the lead. Don’t take over! Then after the visit, rehash how it went and what was said.
Regardless of which way they’re leaning — for or against your involvement — they need to know you are listening to them.
Does your parent welcome your involvement? Share your stories with us about talking to your parent’s doctor in the comments below.
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