As parents age, adult children often worry about their health especially if mom and dad aren’t the type to share their health issues with family. Your parents may feel awkward about discussing such matters with you or fear losing their independence and privacy. If one of them seems to be ill though, you may start pressuring them to allow you to attend doctor visits or speak to the doctor. While you may mean well, it can raise legal, ethical and family problems if your parents are reluctant to include you.
Legal rights of older adults. Generally, we all have the right to make our own healthcare decisions. Further, healthcare privacy laws prohibit our healthcare information from being revealed to anyone else without our consent, which includes family members. As a result, you cannot force your parents to allow you to attend doctor visits, make decisions for them, or ask the doctor to tell you about your parents’ health unless your parents gave their permission.
There are exceptions. Where someone is incapacitated, another person may make decisions for them. Ideally, every adult should plan for this by executing a healthcare proxy that designates an individual who can make those decisions. In the absence of a healthcare proxy or even if there is one but it is not clear that the person is incapacitated, family members may need to go to court and prove the person needs to have a legal guardian appointed.
Respecting parents’ rights. In a prior post, we discussed how to talk with your parents about aging issues. Trying to pressure your parents into allowing you to get involved with their healthcare can be offensive and infantilizing. Even if you have the best of intentions, your parents may become antagonistic or fearful. The best way to proceed is to start by having family conversations and asking open-ended non-judgmental questions about their concerns and how you could assist them. Also share your worries and your desire to be helpful. Ideally, have these discussions before an urgent health crisis arises. In the context of doctor visits, find out if and how they may want you to participate. Do they want you to hold their hand, be a second set of ears, or ask the doctor questions either in the office or privately?
The doctor’s role. As noted above, doctors cannot talk to family members without the patient’s consent. If they have permission to talk with you, they still may be reluctant if they feel you are acting adversely to their patient’s interests. Importantly, in most cases, doctors should still be primarily communicating with the patient/parent not the children. The goal should be for everyone to work together.
Ultimately, older adults should take control of their healthcare before a crisis, including finding people to trust in the event they need assistance whether that is a family member or someone else. If you, your siblings and parents are arguing, consider elder mediation to help facilitate discussion and resolve conflicts.
For more information on this topic, read this article from the Wall Street Journal – What’s My Role at an Aging Parent’s Doctor Appointment?
If you need assistance planning for the future or would like the help of a mediator, contact me for a consultation.