It’s hard to face facts when a loved one is in declining mental or physical health—but denial may ultimately worsen the situation.
“Mom’s just not feeling well today, that’s all. If I just give her time, she’ll be on the mend and back to her old tricks.”
“I visited Dad just last week and he seemed fine to me. Poor health? You’re exaggerating.”
Denial can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, it can give us time to process stressful information—but if it spins out of control and goes on for too long, it can be a potentially harmful barrier to coping. When it comes to our parents’ health, we may not want to admit it when it’s time to seek help. Indeed, it may be very painful to think about a loved one in failing mental or physical health. But the potential dangers of not taking action far exceed the short-term pain that accompanies facing the reality of the situation.
What Denial Is, and Why It Happens
Denial can be mostly unconscious or have a deliberate component, but either way, it involves a lack of acknowledgement of something going on around you. You may be refusing to recognize a problem or stressful situation, or 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 and not something to beat ourselves up for: “Refusing to acknowledge that something’s wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information and anxiety,” says the Mayo Clinic. Simply becoming aware of denial is an important move forward, and an opportunity to change our own and our loved one’s situation for the better.
Recognizing Signs of Denial in Yourself and Others
When family members can’t recognize that a loved one is ill and needs more senior care than they can get at home, it can be a frustrating experience for caregivers. But denial can be even more pernicious when we are experiencing it ourselves. We may not even 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 tell-tale signs to watch out for if you’ve got a 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.
- Ignoring signs of a health problem.For example, if your loved one has begun dropping things or tripping while walking, these may be signs of an impaired nervous system, says Dr. Carol Berman, Assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, NYU Medical Center, in the Huffington Post. If you find yourself ignoring symptoms, you may want to reevaluate the situation with a physician.
- Pretending nothing has changed.Your 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 loved one does something unusual? Again, not accepting that a parent’s health has changed could put them in danger of accidents or injuries.
- 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 Dr. Berman.
Moving Past Denial: Coping Strategies for Families
If the situations described 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:
- What are you afraid of? Denial often has its roots in fear. Ask yourself honestly what scares you about the situation, and allow yourself to express that fear and any other emotions you may have—either in a private journal, with someone you trust, or with a mental health professional.
- Take a closer look. Are you falling back on irrational thoughts or beliefs 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?
- Reach out for help. Open up to someone you trust, attend a support group, or visit a counselor. Don’t forget to involve loved ones when it’s time to have that tough conversation. And if it’s time for your loved one to get help, make an appointment with a health care provider.
Has denial been an obstacle for you in making sure your loved one gets the senior care they need? What is your advice for readers in the same situation? Let us know in the comments.
This article was written by Sarah Stevenson on May 1, 2013 and can be found in its’ entirety at