The family had begun to notice some small changes in their mom. Even the simplest tasks - going for a walk, bathing - were now suffused with low-level strain. When they offered to help her bathe or change clothes, she acted peevish and shut them out. They noticed a dank odor on her body. They assumed it was something about their mother getting old, and perhaps just a bit cranky.
Then, one of the daughters happened to walk in on the mother as she was changing. The mother had bunches of tissues plastered to her breast. The daughter stared silently as the mother peeled away the damp bandages. Blood and puss spilled from a gaping sore.
"Why didn't you tell us?" she sobbed.
"For God' sake," snapped the mother, startled by her daughter's presence. "Please, go away," she stammered, trying to cover her wound.
The daughter began to cry as she edged down the stairs to call for emergency care. "I've never seen anything like it, " the emergency medical technician later whispered as she slowly walked the mother out the door. The diagnosis turned out to be breast cancer. Three weeks later the mother died.
As I consoled one of her daughters, she remarked that the mother had actually known for the past three years that she had a serious illness. Yet, she did not share it with her family, choosing instead to try to anesthetize the wound herself with Listerine and peroxide.
They always found it strange that their mother seemed so defensive when they offered to help her change her clothes. But they didn't' pry. And the mother simply resolved to suffer in silence, as was her nature.
Sadly, the mother's story is just one of countless examples of seniors who choose to confront their own demise in silence rather than seek timely medical care. So says Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Claude Allen, who attributes the stubborn refusal of many seniors to seek health care to fear and distrust of the medical profession. Some of those fears, says Allen, are hangovers from the Tuskegee experiments, in which the U.S. government used African-American men as guinea pigs to test the effects of syphilis.
By and large, though, the refusal of seniors to seek out medical assistance is based on cultural myths and barriers. "I talked to someone recently who said he grew up in a city where you never crossed the railroad tracks at night for fear that hospital workers would steal your organs," explained Allen.
The stubborn resistance of many seniors to medical treatment also reflects the failure of family members to force the issue. Some family members are psychologically unwilling to confront their parent's eroding health. Others simply do not know how to force their parents to take action. Consequently, many family members only intervene when a severe crisis reveals itself. By then, it is often too late.
Plainly, family members need to be more assertive about taking their aging loved ones in for an annual checkup. They need to find out what that pain means. No longer can we shrink from the trauma of confronting a loved one's illness. In an attempt to increase awareness for proper health care, the Department of Health and Human Services has designated Sept. 24, "Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day." "It is imperative that more aging Americans seek timely treatment," Allen says.
The horrible alternative is embodied by my friend, sobbing on my shoulder as she wonders why her mother kept her illness a secret, and why the family didn't do more when they had the chance.