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Privacy Issues: Can Caregivers and Families Go Too Far?

Deb Hipp
By Deb HippOctober 1, 2018

As parents and senior loved ones age, adult children often grow concerned that Dad or Mom can no longer manage their finances or health and may be making poor decisions. That concern can tempt caregivers and families to cross the line, creating privacy issues and tension that blocks communication.

Learn more about these caregiver privacy issues and what steps to take to help honor your parent’s emotional and physical needs for privacy.

A Common Caregiver Privacy Issue

Lannette Cornell Bloom’s mother, Cathy, had always tended the household bookkeeping. However, four years into her terminal Pulmonary Fibrosis diagnosis, medication began to affect her cognitive abilities, especially when paying bills.

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One day, Bloom pulling a handful of envelopes from her parents’ mailbox during a visit. That’s when she saw the tax bill envelope stamped in red: “Fourth Notice.”

“Dad, it happened again,” Bloom told her father. “Another notice? Your mother swears she paid it,” he said.

Then he showed her another letter from the pile, this one from a local department store. Inside the envelope was the check Cathy filled out for taxes, mailed to the wrong recipient.

Caregiver Privacy Issues: Crossing the Line

Of course, Bloom and her dad were concerned. However, demanding to take over Cathy’s personal finance duties seemed embarrassing and insulting.

“Instead of telling her she was no longer capable of bookkeeping and forcing it out of her hands, I gently suggested she use a trusted accountant until we were able to get her medication levels back in order,” says Bloom, an R.N. and author of “Memories in Dragonflies: Simple Lessons for Mindful Dying.”

By framing the solution as a temporary situation, Bloom’s mom was able to let go of the household bookkeeping while retaining some hope that she might one day return to it.

“Together we made the decision, and I helped her transition into the next stage of care without causing an argument or forcing her to change what she wasn’t yet ready to confront,” says Bloom.

Often, adult children worry that an aging parent is slipping cognitively or making poor decisions. That concern can tempt family caregivers to examine the house like a detective looking for clues at a crime scene, scan the refrigerator for expired food and snoop into a loved one’s finances.

However, adult children can go too far, causing tension and defensiveness that blocks communication necessary to a senior loved one’s well-being. On the other hand, sometimes safety plays a part.

“If there is a question about the person’s safety or possible harm to someone else, that would be the line I would cross,” says Iris Waichler, a medical social worker and author of “Role Reversal: How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.” “It’s really important to pick and choose your battles.”

For example, if Dad forgets to pay the electricity bill and it gets shut off, that could be a time to step in. However, you may be able to handle that touchy situation without causing your parent to feel like you’re taking over his life.

Telling your dad, “You’re not fit to do this on your own,” will probably make him angry or defensive, says Waichler, who advises figuring out an approach to a concern or problem together. She recommends tackling the situation in a collaborative rather than a conflictual way.

“You could say, ‘I know your quality of life is important to you and it’s important to me too. Let’s sit down and brainstorm, so this doesn’t happen again,” says Waichler.

Solutions for Dignity and Privacy

All humans desire dignity and respect, and “that need doesn’t change when a person becomes disabled or ill,” according to the Washington State Aging and Adult Services Administration Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). “Indeed, it may grow even stronger.”

Whether your parent or senior loved one lives independently or requires assistance with daily activities like bathing and dressing, it’s important to respect that person’s dignity and privacy.

According to the Washington DSHS, you can take these steps to honor your loved one’s emotional and physical needs for privacy:

  1. Don’t take away your loved one’s control over small choices that he has always made for himself. For example, if Dad is able, let him decide what time he’d like to eat his meals.
  2. If your loved one is able, obtain his or her permission before discussing confidential information with other people, even family members.
  3. If your loved one makes a choice that seems silly or unimportant to you, don’t automatically dismiss or override it. Instead, try to see why the choice is important to the person.
  4. Knock before opening a closed door, even if someone is bedridden.
  5. Try to negotiate possible solutions if your loved one makes dangerous choices or refuses to take medication. For example, offer pills with a favorite snack (if diet allows), agree to give fewer baths if that’s a source of contention, or arrange for someone to accompany your loved one if he or she is unsafe going for walks alone.

Keep in mind that as you take on more responsibility in caring for your loved one, that person is also losing their independence. It’s frustrating and hard on both sides, Bloom says. She recommends working together to communicate, listen and make decisions from a place of understanding rather than a position of fear or anger.

“A family caregiver may assume they know what’s best for their loved one, but it’s important to keep them a part of the decision-making process,” says Bloom. ”There is always a way to reframe a situation.”

Have you encountered any of the above privacy issues while caregiving? We’d like to hear your caregiving stories in the comments below.

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