As parents age, denial sets in for adult kids

Fear is often root cause

In my conversations with home-care agencies, residentialcare facilities and hands-on family caregivers, I hear an almost universal challenge: family members who are in denial about their senior loved one’s mental, physical or emotional health.


“Dad has never been violent,” says the son whose father with dementia punched the female caregiver in the chest.

“I visited Mom last week and she seemed fine to me,” says the daughter who’s been told her mother is taking and hoarding the possessions of other residents.

“I think you’re exaggerating,” says the brother who lives hours away after being told by his sibling that their father is ready for hospice care.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Denial is a psychological defense we use to reduce our anxiety when dealing with a stressful situation.”

It is a normal human reaction, which may cause us to not recognize a problem or to minimize its severity.

A majority of the time it’s an unconscious phenomenon. Those in denial are not aware of their inability to accept a situation, which makes it that much harder to address.

Why would an adult child be in denial about a parent’s challenges?

Often it’s because we were so reliant on our parents when we were younger, we don’t want to see changes in their abilities. It’s stressful to see them now needing our help.

Sometimes it’s the fear that we will end up being financially and personally responsible for a parent’s care. And occasionally, families see it as a ploy by a care agency or a residential facility to increase the price for services.

How can we recognize the signs of denial in ourselves?

Ignoring signs of a health problem, even when confronted with irrefutable evidence, can be a sign of denial. Even after his dad has repeatedly become lost while running errands and has received tickets for reckless driving, a son may not see the physical or mental issues behind his father’s driving challenges.

Pretending nothing has changed is another sign of denial. A father’s end-of-life diagnosis might be too stressful for a son to deal with, so he says the messenger is exaggerating.

Rationalizing behavior is another form of denial. When visiting her mom at a facility, a daughter sees many new items in her room—clothing, trinkets and personal items that are not hers—yet she decides the other residents probably lent these items to her mother.

Getting angrier than usual might be a sign of denial. Denial causes us to suppress our feelings, which may be expressed in other emotions, like anger.

If you feel you may be in denial about your aging parent’s condition, what can you do?

The Mayo Clinic suggests a number of strategies. Ask yourself what you are afraid of. Denial often has its basis in fear. Think realistically about what is going on and reach out for help: Talk to a friend or attend a support group.

A third party, such as a lifecare manager, social worker or counselor, can help families come to terms with a parent’s needs and devise a plan to care for them.

Senior Concerns offers free care counseling for families. Call (805) 497-0189 for an appointment.


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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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