HOW-TO: TALKING A LOVED ONE’S HEALTH
Health care needs, whether yours or a loved one’s, can be a challenging and sensitive topic to discuss. Starting the conversation might seem like the most daunting part, but there are several “traps” or pitfalls that could derail your chat or make it less effective.
You might broach the conversation and discover they simply don’t know what their health risks are. Sometimes, people respond with embarrassment or defensiveness, especially if they are concerned about being judged for their decisions. A person may also resist the conversation out of fear of “jinxing” their good health.
Your loved one’s resistance to visiting a doctor can undoubtedly be frustrating for you. Keeping your emotions in check is crucial though—getting angry, yelling, or making hurtful comments will not help the situation. It can be difficult to stay in control, but avoiding the following can help:
- Nagging and Parenting: Lecturing, using phrases like “you need to do this,” or yelling isn’t motivating and can close you off from your loved one. It can also make it seem like you think they’re not capable of anything, which won’t help your relationship with them.
- Getting too Emotional: Strong emotions make a conversation more difficult to carry out and can cause you to say things you don’t truly mean. Wait until you’re feeling calm, and if things get heated during the conversation, take a pause and revisit it later.
- Describing Worst-Case Scenarios: If you’re noticing your loved one’s health declining, don’t go further and describe horrible things that could happen. For example, saying “If you don’t visit the doctor you’re going to fall and break your hip soon!” won’t help. Instead, it’ll cause fear and defensiveness. Describe your concern using “I” statements (for example, “I’m concerned you’re not seeing the doctor”) and stick only to the facts (for example, “You’ve fallen twice this month”).
- Being too Consistent: Consistency is helpful, but bringing up the conversation too often can come off as nagging. Take it slow. Don’t expect your loved one to change their mind right away.
- Make Decisions for Your Loved One: It’s ultimately up to your loved one to make their own healthcare decisions and come to the conclusion that a medical visit is helpful. Try not to be too forceful. Rather, work with your loved one to get them to the same page as you.
They Get Defensive
People often respond defensively when asked directly about their health—especially if they’re worried about being judged. Health is a private matter and involves a lot of personal decisions—some of which may be difficult.
Adults, especially older adults, may resent feeling as though they are being “coddled” or “nagged.” Even if you’re asking out of concern, a parent or older friend may feel that you’re treating them like a child or think they are not able to care for themselves properly.
What to Do
One way to avoid miscommunication and putting a loved one on the defensive is to consider how what you say may not be what the other person hears. The words you use, the volume and tone of your voice, as well as your body language can change how your message is received.
They Shut Down the Conversation
If you’re loved one or friend shuts down the conversation or refuses to continue talking about their health, consider the possible reasons behind the action. It’s important that you understand where they’re coming from and what’s motivating their behavior before trying to pick up the conversation again or re-engage them in a discussion at a later time.
People may resist going to the doctor because even the thought of doing so fills them with fear. Sometimes, a person has a specific phobia related to hospitals and doctors, such as needles or blood. If someone was seriously ill or injured in the past (or cared for someone who was) doctors and hospitals may bring those potentially traumatic experiences back to them.
Even in the absence of any specific fears or past trauma, many people find engaging with the health care system for any reason to be anxiety-provoking.
It’s also not uncommon for people to be reluctant to seek medical care (even when it’s routine) because they don’t want to be told something is wrong. They may refuse tests or screenings because they fear being diagnosed with a serious illness or being told they have a risk factor for a disease or condition.
What to Do
Provide reassurance and make sure that your loved one feels their fears and concerns have been heard. Don’t downplay them, even if you think they are overreacting.
Ask them if they have specific worries or just a general feeling of anxiety. This information will help you better understand where they’re coming from and help you consider what would be helpful (or unhelpful) to say.
You might be able to help them by offering a different perspective or supporting them in taking a step back and looking at the situation from a less emotion-driven, rational standpoint. This can be especially helpful if they’re considering the risks and benefits of a test or treatment.
In Extreme Cases
If you’re noticing your loved one’s health declining and they still refuse to visit a doctor, remember that there’s only so much you can do. Nagging, starting heating discussions, or saying things like “I told you so” will not help the situation. Make it clear to your loved one that you’re encouraging them from a place of love and concern, but they need to come to their own conclusions and take their own actions when it comes to their health.
They’re Worried About Burdening You
Guilt often wields considerable influence on the decisions people make about their needs, and that includes their health. People may feel like they are a burden to others if they need to ask for help. For example, someone might not make a doctor’s appointment because they don’t have a ride to the office or they would need to ask someone to watch their kids.
People may also feel guilty or worried if they need to take time off from work or school. Losing time and money, as well as being concerned about falling behind on responsibilities or letting others down, may prevent someone from putting their needs first.
What to Do
When you’re clear on what you can reasonably offer, express that you are ready and willing to help. It can help mitigate your loved one’s worries about asking for too much if you provide a specific offer (such as “I can give you a ride to your appointment that day.”) rather than a general, open-ended offer like “I’m here if you need anything!”
Also keep in mind that your friend or loved one may need more than a ride to a doctor’s office, and you may not be able to directly address those needs. Health care disparities mean it’s not always easy or straightforward for someone to get the services they need.
Availability, affordability, and accessibility of quality health care vary and may depend on where a person lives. People with complex health conditions often find it especially challenging to find, and coordinate, providers from multiple specialties.
In these instances, you might offer to help your friend research and connect with resources in the community. If that’s not within the scope of what you can provide, simply being a listening ear as your friend navigates the hurdles might be the best way to support them.
They’re Dealing With Fear or Trauma
There are many aspects of medical care that a person might fear, especially if they have a history of trauma.
Fears can also stem from a lack of resources due to poverty, mental or physical disabilities, and cultural or language barriers that make the health care system difficult, if not traumatizing, to navigate.
If your friend becomes fearful when you’re discussing medical care, consider that they may have had past negative experiences—either themselves or involving others that they were caring for—that are making the conversation upsetting.
What to Do
Be compassionate and supportive. Acknowledge your loved one’s fear and, if they feel up to sharing, be a good listener. Understand that you may not be able to completely rid your friend of their fears, but you can do your best to support them.
Before making a specific offer, ask them what has helped them in the past. Explore with them what strategies they’ve used in the past to deal with their anxiety. That may help you recognize opportunities to offer specific support without putting pressure on your friend to come up with a solution, which may be difficult if they are in a very emotional place.