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Be compassionate when accompanying older adults to medical appointments

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol Bradley Bursack offers advice to a reader who wants to provide accurate information to the doctor without upsetting their mother.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist.
The Forum

Dear Carol: My mom’s 83 and is being treated for the usual issues like high cholesterol and blood pressure. I’ve been accompanying her to the doctor for several years and that’s worked well but now she seems to be hedging when answering the doctor’s questions. I see her memory slipping just a bit which she denies, so I try to signal to the doctor that Mom may not be answering truthfully. This makes her angry. The doctor needs accurate information but how do I do this without making Mom so upset that she will no longer accept my help? — GY.

Dear GY: You’re in a tough place. As you noted, if older adults don’t cooperate by being truthful when talking to doctors, they may not receive the best possible care. I’ve been there myself, and it’s frustrating because we just want what’s best.

Some things to consider that might help improve the next appointment:

  • Older people are frequently ignored by clinic staff and even doctors if they are accompanied by someone younger. This is often worse when the patient is using a walking aid or wheelchair. If the staff or physician looks at you and says, “How is she doing?” look at your mom and wait for her to speak. If they aren’t getting the message, you can say, “Mom will tell you.” Feeling fully included in her own medical care will encourage your mom to be more truthful.
  • Even younger people often bend the truth when talking with their doctors. Keeping this in mind during your mom's appointments can help you remain more compassionate.
  • The hard part is that depending on your mom’s abilities, there are likely times when she would appreciate your input or where it’s obviously necessary for her health. Keep trying to balance her need to do most of the speaking with your role as record-keeper. It may help to look at your mom and say, “Oh, remember Mom, we were going to ask…” Then, go ahead and share your information with the doctor. Your mom may not like it but at least you appear to be trying to help rather than taking over.
  • You are there as your mom’s advocate, so do speak up if you feel that she’s being pushed into something that goes against her values for her late-life care.
  • If you are seriously worried about memory loss and she refuses to address this, you can send the doctor a note in advance of the appointment laying out your concerns. That way the physician has a solid basis for asking direct questions.

This is just a start, GY. Maintain respect for your mom’s autonomy because this is about her personal health, and she has a right to be involved. However, if there are major concerns that she won’t address due to poor thinking you may need to speak up as kindly as possible.
An excellent guide for this and many other challenges can be found at Next Step in Care ( https://www.nextstepincare.org/ ).

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblog.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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