By Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist
As published in the May 2005 Edition of Prime Life Magazine
One of the things geriatric mental health clinicians find out early in their careers is that elderly men are extremely reluctant to honestly recognize their feelings and to seek mental health care when it is really needed. Frequently they seem to use little “self deceptions” to keep their fears and true feelings at bay. This seems to be changing slightly as men in general are becoming more psychologically oriented and less apt to rely upon these self deceptions to keep your true feelings at a distance. Rachelle Zukerman Ph.D. has compiled 9 ways that elders hide their feelings with “self deceptions” in her book Eldercare for Dummies:
(1) Denying the Truth- The act of denying the truth usually serves a purpose. Some negative news may be so emotionally overwhelming that it may be difficult to continue functioning. Acceptance takes time. Denial for a short period of time may help you to accept reality gradually, but continued denial may be risky, eventually jeopardizing your health and safety.
(2) Complaining of Aches and Pains– Unexpressed emotions such as those associated with depression and anxiety are often expressed physically by headaches, stomachaches, back aches and other physical problems. Geriatric clinicians call these symptoms “psychosomatic” in that mental health concerns actually manifest themselves in physical ways. The conversion of these feelings into physical complaints may be especially relevant with older men who may find it unacceptable to complain of sadness or worrying, or even see mental health concerns as a sign of weakness.
(3) Displaying False Bravado– False bravado may be one of the most potentially dangerous self deceptions for older men. It may cause them to climb a ladder to hang their own Christmas lights although subject to dizziness, or shovel snow drifts in subfreezing temperatures while having an existing heart condition. It is an attempt to deny fear and to boldly stare danger in the face, which could be deadly.
(4) Exaggerating Helplessness– Sometimes, older men may also act as if they’re more needy then they really are. The underlying feeling or issue may be related to the sadness of having lost their spouse or other concerns of abandonment by family members. Feigning helplessness induces caregivers to provide even more care which may be comforting at first. Eventually however, the person may become increasingly passive and may often complain incessantly. This may lead to a downward spiral of increasing demands by the older person and anger and resentment by the caregiver. The best approach to this downward spiral is to encourage your elderly family member to be more independent while assuring him that he will not be forsaken.
(5) Doing Busywork– This is one self-deception that an older man may even be aware of. The goal of busywork is usually for the older gentleman to keep himself very busy for fear of losing his mental faculties or sense of productivity. The way to determine whether an activity is “busywork” is if the goal is merely to take up time rather than to yield productive results. Some older men immerse themselves in a flurry of activities, meetings and hobbies to keep away guilty feelings about not being productive in a society that has such a strong work ethic.
(6) Digging in Their Heels – Gerontologists believe that the elderly are about as flexible as any other group. Elderly men who seem obstinate, unreasonably unyielding or rigid may be trying to deal with their fears of feeling powerless. Fear of losing control is frequently underneath obstinence or a refusal to accept help.
(7) Remembering Selectively– Older women will tell you that older men share a trait with their teenage grandchildren that literally drives them crazy. They seem to hear and remember only what they want to. They may ignore painful features of their current experience and focus on pleasurable experiences from the past or only the pleasant times in their current experiences. However, this is also a form of denial used by all of us when we are experiencing difficulties in our lives.
(8) Idealizing– Idealizing is a form of denial in which an older person may glorify their past, their status or feelings of importance in order to defend against feelings of regret about the life they have led or things they have accomplished. There is a saying among middle-aged/older men referring to this distortion related to their past athletic history stating: “The older I get, the better I was.” This can be merely a minor irritation if done to a lesser degree, but can also have an alienating effect on family members who have to listen to it all of the time.
(9) Misdirecting Anger-This last deception involves redirecting disagreeable feelings rather then recognizing and dealing with them. Some older men (and women) may find it too threatening to experience the anger they feel toward a specific person, so they may shift their anger to a safer individual. An example may be when anger is directed toward a caregiving child who can be relied upon no matter what, rather then the child who never visits (who may even visit less after a display of anger).
As with individuals of all age groups, older men need to be more comfortable with their ability to express their feelings in a direct, honest way for the benefit of their wives and children, as well as their own physical and mental health.