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How to Recognize When You’re in Denial About Your Parents’ Health

By Sarah StevensonAugust 7, 2018
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Last Updated: August 7, 2018

When it comes to our parents’ health, we may not want to admit when it’s time to seek help. Though it can be painful to think about a senior loved one’s failing mental or physical health, the potential dangers of not taking action exceed the stress that accompanies facing the reality of the situation.

Learn more about how to recognize when you’re in denial about your parents’ health so that you can face the facts and find your parent or senior loved one the care they need.

Denial: How and Why It Happens

Denial can have a deliberate component or be unconscious, but either way, it involves a lack of acknowledgment of something going on around you. You may be refusing to recognize a problem or stressful situation or be minimizing its severity. Sometimes, the situation you’re in denial about can be obvious to others — to a direct caregiver, for instance, in the case of a parent’s health.

Understanding what denial is and why it occurs is an important first step in recognizing whether we ourselves are experiencing it — and it helps us realize that denial is a normal human reaction.

“Refusing to acknowledge that something’s wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict… painful thoughts and threatening information,” says the Mayo Clinic.

Simply becoming aware of denial is an important move forward and an opportunity to change our own and our parent or senior loved one’s situation for the better.

How to Recognize Denial in Yourself and Others

When other family members or friends can’t recognize that a senior loved one needs more care than they can get at home, it can be a frustrating experience for their caregivers. Unfortunately, denial can be even more pernicious when we are experiencing it ourselves, as we may not be conscious of our inability to accept the situation.

If that’s the case, how can we alert ourselves to recognizing if there’s a problem?

There are some signs to look out for if you have a parent or senior loved one whose health may be worsening:

  • Feeling stuck. “If you don’t seem to be making much progress dealing with a stressful situation on your own,” says the Mayo Clinic, you may be stuck in denial about the severity of the problem.
  • Getting angrier than usual. “You are suppressing your feelings when you’re in denial so your anger and many other feelings will be much more intense than usual,” says the Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU Medical Center, Carol Berman, M.D.
  • Ignoring signs of a health problem. For example, if your parent has begun dropping things or tripping while walking, these may be signs of an impaired nervous system, says Dr. Berman. If you find yourself ignoring symptoms, you may want to reevaluate the situation with a physician.
  • Pretending nothing has changed. Your senior loved one might not be able to do the things he or she used to do — drive a car, or walk somewhere unaccompanied — particularly if dementia is involved. It’s not reasonable or safe to expect them to do so.
  • Rationalizing behavior. Do you try to explain it away whenever your parent does something unusual? Again, not accepting that a senior loved one’s health has changed could put them in danger of accidents or injuries.

Ways to Move Past Denial

If the situations above have you nodding your head in recognition — or if a trusted family member or friend has suggested you might be in denial — then what’s the next step?

The Mayo Clinic suggests a number of strategies for getting your mind around the situation and coming to terms with your own feelings:

Talk with a Senior Living Advisor

Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.

1. Reach out for help.

Open up to a counselor, someone you trust or a support group. Remember to involve your parent or senior loved one when it’s time to have that tough conversation. Then, if it’s time for your parent to get help, make an appointment with a health care provider.

2. Take a closer look.

Are you falling back on irrational thoughts about your loved one’s health? Again, be honest with yourself. Think realistically about what will happen if you don’t take action. Will there be negative consequences?

3. What are you afraid of?

Denial often has its roots in fear. Try to ask yourself honestly what scares you about the situation and allow yourself to express that fear and any other emotions you may have — either with a mental health professional, in a private journal or with someone you trust.

Has denial been an obstacle for you in making sure your parent gets the senior care they need? What suggestions do you have for overcoming them? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson