The Secrets of Aging Parents

Adult children are frustrated by their aging parent’s unwillingness to share important information about their plans, health or finances. The withholding weakens the caregiving partnership and sets everyone up for poor outcomes. So why are they so secretive at the worse possible time?

Some people believe it is generational where personal information is held more closely to the social vest. Maybe, but I believe there is more going on here, deeper currents reflecting a need for control in world of fading choices. At their core secrets share the same power as the blunt “no” without comment.

Caught up in struggle to preserve control, older adults may be forced to play “no” without comment card. While appearing illogical or even dangerous, the unexplained “no” is always a game changer. Poor outcome or not, older adults assert their right to make the call, and they do.

Like the unexplained “no,” secrets command center stage in the drama of aging parents, a controlling fact that can’t be ignored. Take it or leave it but I’m not telling you.

So how do adult children to deal with the stark refusal of an aging parent to explain his or her decision or share essential information? As with all uneven conversations, framing is everything. Begin with the missing benefit of having more information. “It would be helpful to know why this isn’t going to work for you…” “It would be helpful to know what the doctor said about…” “It would be helpful to know what kind of financial resources you are planning to use…”

And indeed it would, but for now it’s clear that’s not going to happen. So you tag the missing benefit with a qualifying “but” at the end of the observation with your intentions. “But given that we don’t know, we will do our best based on what you have shared with us so far to honor your wishes.” And there in lies the rub.

While secrets “checkmate” the collaborative process, their use can easily backfire on aging parents with unintended consequences. The money mysteriously runs out. Solo caregiving sickens the healthy spouse. Aging in place suddenly falls apart. Yes, secrets do preserve control but always at the expense of other options for a more sustainable, long-term control.

In the end, adult children are left follow of what is given to them and what is possible based on personalities and history. They are left to define their own version of best efforts, find a way to live up to it and accept the unresolved outcomes. It is a truth that also reminds all of us that we share the same impulsive gene of the unfettered “no” along with a robust inventory of uncooperative secrets that can’t wait for their moment when we too are older…