Dear Carolyn: I have a parent in their 60s who has not seen a doctor for 20-plus years. They have had the occasional insurance checkup (blood pressure, etc.) and visit the dentist regularly. That’s it.
I have raised the issue several times over the last decade, to the point of pleading, but they refuse to talk about it. (In my family, kids are not allowed to question parents on anything, even with the “kids” now adults.) Other adults in our family have briefly raised the issue, to no avail.
A running theme of your work is that you can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. So I try, most of the time, to put this issue out of my mind. But as my parent gets older, I feel increasingly worried. If they end up dying relatively young of some disease that could have been treated, had it been caught earlier, I’ll feel both guilty and devastated. Is there anything more I can do?
Child of Stubborn Parent
You can ask yourself why you’d feel guilty for something you couldn’t do.
You were raised to stay out of it, you were told (via proverbial brick wall) to stay out of it, and others were told likewise. So if your worst case comes true, how could it possibly be your fault that you weren’t more involved?
A different running theme in my work is arguably more on point: Build your life with the options you have, not the ones you wish you had.
You know you will not talk this parent into a doctor’s office. Not an option. So, what options remain?
• Talk to a reputable therapist about the fear of doctors, which is in the anxiety family. This is for you, mostly, since the one thing you apparently haven’t tried is professional help. Plus, your parent is anxious, and you’re anxious about your parent, and 2 + 2 often = a family trait worth exploring.
• Embrace and respect people’s right to live on their own terms, even if you’d choose different ones.
• Accept that doing so often means watching someone refuse an obvious and rational course.
• Realize this trait you deplore in your parent is inseparable from other traits you love. It’s a fact of the human experience: Having one thing means not having another. Having this exact parent you love so much means not having say in his or her care.
• And, the crux of it: Know, fully, that your parent might die of an otherwise curable illness. Devastating, yes — but it’s no different from what we all have to process, that death might come suddenly, or slowly, incurably, or in the crosswalk or the tub, or when no one’s there to dial 911. It’s all devastating.
Your “put this issue out of my mind” strategy all but guarantees the issue will own you. Try meeting mortality head on instead — not just its inevitability, but also its ultimate, utter failure to talk humankind out of living and loving while we can. That’s freedom.
So while it is time to stop thinking it’s your job to control your parent or else!!, it’s also time to stop seeing control as an answer, period. You can plan for tomorrow, but the place to find joy is today.
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