Conversations That Matter: Tips For Discussing Incontinence with an Elderly Loved One
Discussing incontinence with an elderly loved one might be difficult, but it’s something that can’t go ignored. Without intervention and treatment, the risk of serious health problems, including rashes, sores, and urinary tract infections, increases significantly.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 50.9% of individuals aged 65 and older have some form of incontinence. Even though the problem is common, caregivers often find it difficult to broach the topic with aging loved ones. And, because of the stigma, many people go years without getting help. The National Association for Continence says it takes an average of seven years after the onset of symptoms for patients to receive care.
If the person you care for regularly experiences accidents, it’s important to take action. Though it might seem daunting, with a little bit of planning you can handle the discussion with empathy and compassion. To ensure a receptive audience and the best possible outcome, take the time to prepare in advance with these five simple steps.
Schedule a doctor’s visit. Often, incontinence occurs due to an underlying health problem. Before discussing the topic one-on-one, get your loved one in for an annual checkup. Men and women experience incontinence for various reasons, including hormonal changes caused by menopause, prostate cancer, and the natural aging process.
Addressing these or other issues, and implementing healthy lifestyle changes like cutting back on caffeine, alcohol, or spicy foods, may be enough to make a significant improvement. If your loved one continues to have accidents, you may want to consider a cognitive evaluation to screen for dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Ask for help. Incontinence can be an embarrassing or uncomfortable topic to discuss. If your loved one tends to get defensive or combative, you may want to bring in a third party like a doctor or family friend your senior knows and trusts. This takes some of the pressure off of you and allows for another voice of reason.
Don’t forget to consider relationship dynamics. If you’re caring for a parent, they may feel too proud to discuss an issue like incontinence. An outside party without any emotional attachment may be able to help your loved one see the situation in a different light.
Use respectful language. Caring for a loved one with incontinence isn’t easy. Frequent changes, additional laundry, and monitoring fluid intake can pull you away from work, hobbies, or other responsibilities. It’s normal to feel frustrated or upset, but don’t let these emotions spill into the conversation.
When talking about such a sensitive subject, speak in a calm, even, and optimistic tone. Instead of making accusations, discuss how incontinence affects you and your ability to provide care. If your loved one has been diagnosed with an underlying health problem, explain that you understand why they’re experiencing incontinence and that you want to help.
When you make suggestions for care, use age-appropriate terms. Instead of saying “diaper” or “adult diaper,” which have negative connotations, use words like “incontinence pads,” “liners,” “shields,” or “disposable underwear.” If your loved one is concerned that people will know they’re wearing pads, remind them that modern options are compact and discreet. Consider picking up a few samples or taking your senior to a local grocery store or pharmacy to browse the different products.
Select a time and place. Incontinence can trigger feelings of embarrassment or shame. To help minimize these and other negative emotions, be thoughtful about when and where you approach the topic. For example, you might want to consider having a conversation with your loved one over their favorite meal or while participating in an activity they love, like fishing or a walk in the park. If your senior is in an environment where they feel relaxed and at ease, they’re more likely to be receptive.
The time of day that you hold the conversation is just as important. If your loved one is most alert and active following breakfast, plan to have the discussion then. If they take a daily nap, have the conversation 30 minutes later, when they’re feeling refreshed.
Don’t be afraid to use a lighthearted approach. Incontinence is a serious issue but humor can be a great way to break the ice. Aging is something that affects all of us, and many of the side-effects are unpleasant. Let your senior know that you can relate. Mention that you miss having hair or that you remember the days when your joints didn’t ache after working out. Adding a little levity to the situation may help your loved one put their guard down and accept help.
Don’t let fear or anxiety prevent you from discussing incontinence with an aging loved one. Remember, you’re not forcing anyone to do something they don’t want. You’re merely taking steps to correct the issue, ensuring improved physical and mental health.
Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.