Denial: by now you’ve probably heard about this completely understandable coping mechanism. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a prominent psychiatrist, even mentioned it as the first stage of grief[1. “The Five Stages of Grief,” https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/] in her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying.
But grieving isn’t the only thing that can put a person in denial. People can go into denial about any situation that makes them afraid or uncomfortable. It’s especially common in older adults with chronic or degenerative illnesses. Confronting diseases can be scary, and sometimes, it seems easier not to deal with them at all. However, this leaves seniors at risk for health conditions that worsen quickly. And sometimes it’s not the older adult who’s in denial, but their caregiver.
Why Denial Is So Dangerous
It puts people’s health at risk
The most salient problem with denial is the potential for physical and mental harm to the older adult and their caregiver. In the case of the older adult, if the caretaker won’t face the fact that the former has a heart condition, many things can go wrong. The patient may not get their medicine as scheduled, miss follow-up visits with their cardiologist, or even have a heart attack that is treated too late—or not at all.
Caregivers in denial may also fail to notice that their loved ones are becoming socially isolated—a danger nearly as great as any physical one they face. Physical and mental burnout can strike the caregiver as well, leaving them in terrible shape. Even worse, there is often no one else to take over caregiving duties when they fall ill and the older adult may find themselves with no help whatsoever.
It has money-draining potential
If your loved one has a serious illness, the chances are good they need financial resources to deal with that now, and will continue to need them in the future. But caregiver denial comes with the possibility of squandering those critical resources. For instance, if you can’t admit that your loved one is suffering from dementia, you may continue to let them handle their own finances long after it’s advisable. They may make large, unwise transactions, give money away to scam artists, or simply forget where important assets and forms are. Denial also doesn’t allow you and your loved one to plan for the future when resources may be more scarce.
It can come with legal consequences
Hand-in-hand with the financial ramifications of caregiver denial are the possible legal consequences. There may come a time when your loved one can no longer speak for themselves. In this case, it may be up to you to be their advocate, whether it be for health or financial reasons. The best time to prepare for such advocacy is when the person is still in relatively good mental health, and able to make decisions on their own.
In these cases, they can give you permission to be their Power of Attorney (POA).[2. “Helping an Elder Make a Power of Attorney,” https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/make-power-of-attorney-elder-30048.html] This makes it much easier to talk with government agencies, bank officials, and medical professionals on their behalf. But if you wait too long, and your loved one is no longer mentally able to name you POA, you can run into a world of trouble trying to get the care and assets that they need.
Don’t Let Denial Render Seniors at Risk
Any time caretakers are unaware of—or unwilling to deal with—an older adult’s problems, it leaves seniors at risk. There can be no doubt that caregiving is hard, and denial seems to offer short-term psychological benefits. However, in the long run, it is as deadly and damaging as any illness. By being aware of the potential for denial in both yourself and others, you’ll minimize the chances your loved one goes without essential care. You’ll also maximize the odds that you’ll find the resources, support, and strength to fulfill this important role.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.