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Recognizing an Elder's Efforts to Hide Distressful Emotions

People frequently protect themselves from the pain of their own emotions (including anxiety, resentment, frustration, and depression) by hiding these feelings — from themselves and from others. They often do so without even being aware that they're doing it. Seniors are no exception.

Hiding feelings is not always a bad thing — it can be an excellent way to cope with a scary world and protect yourself from being emotionally overcome. Psychologists called these maneuvers "life's little deceptions." But life's little deceptions can be harmful as well as helpful. For example, an older man is told that he has severe emphysema. The prognosis is so frightening that he deceives himself into thinking his situation isn't as bad as the doctor claims (thus avoiding emotional distress). He may fool himself about the seriousness of his condition, but he still follows the doctor's orders. Another man with the same diagnosis is so frightened that he too deceives himself. Choosing to believe that nothing is wrong with him, the second man continues to smoke, disregarding all medical advice and refusing medication. In this case, self-deception can take him to an early grave!

Don't rush to expose your elder's self-deceptions. If they help her cope and do no harm, leave well enough alone. On the other hand, if the self-deceptions harm her health or relationships, take it up with the primary care physician. A psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker may help your elder develop healthier ways to cope with problems and their emotional fallout.

Denying the truth

The act of denying the facts, even when the truth is obvious, usually serves a purpose. For example, denying bad news is common. ("Oh, no, it can't be true.") Otherwise, the news may so emotionally overwhelm you that you're unable to function. Acceptance takes time. Denying the truth for a little while allows a person to accept the reality gradually. On the other hand, continued denial can be risky. For example, the Department of Health condemns an elder's building and sends him an eviction notice, but the oldster insists that nothing's wrong with his building and that no one will force him out. His self-deception jeopardizes his health and safety.

Complaining of aches and pains

Bottled up emotions (especially depression and anxiety) are often expressed physically in headaches, stomachaches, backaches, and other physical problems. The conversion of feelings into physical complaints is especially common in older adults, who may find it unacceptable to complain of sadness or worry, which may be seen as signs of weakness. The physical symptoms persist despite medical attention but may disappear when the elder is treated for depression or anxiety.

Displaying false bravado

How can you explain it when a bright, usually levelheaded elder insists on climbing a ladder to hang his outdoor Christmas lights when he's subject to dizzy spells? Or when he shovels snowdrifts in below-freezing weather when the doctor warns him that his heart is too weak for such activity? Elders who boldly stare danger in the face do so in an effort to cloak their fears with sheer will. False bravado is one of the most potentially dangerous self-deceptions.

Fostering an image of helplessness

On occasion, elders act as if they're more needy than they are. The underlying feeling that's hidden here is fear of abandonment. Feigning helplessness induces caregivers to provide ever more care, which is comforting to the elder who's trying — usually outside her awareness — to shield herself from her fear of abandonment. At first, this self-deception is successful. The elder gets lots of attention; caregivers feel needed. Eventually, the elder grows increasingly passive, often complaining incessantly. The caregiver does more and more, but eventually gets weighed down with the mounting demands and becomes angry, causing the elder's fears to escalate and making her act even more helpless. The best approach to this downward spiral is to encourage your elder's independence while assuring her that she will not be forsaken.

Digging in their heels

Generally, elders are as flexible as any other age group. If your elder seems obstinate, unreasonably unyielding, or rigid, she may just be trying to defend herself against feelings of powerlessness. Fear of losing control is often underneath refusal to accept help.

Looking back to "perfect" times

Idealization occurs when an age-advantaged person glorifies her past, her status, or her importance in order to keep in check her feelings of regret about the life she led. This behavior can be healthy. On the other hand, done to excess, this practice alienates the family that has to listen to it. For example, their mother's repeated stories about the kindness of their deceased father (who in reality was a cruel alcoholic) causes the adult children to limit their visits.

Putting anger in its (wrong) place

This deception consists of redirecting disagreeable feelings rather than hiding them. Sometimes an elder will find it too threatening to experience the anger she feels toward a particular person, so she shifts that anger to a safer person. For example, a mother may be angry at a son who rarely calls or stops by. If she directs her anger toward him, he may even visit less, so she vents her anger instead toward the steadfast child — often the hardworking child who provides most of the care and who can be relied on, no matter what!

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