Our Parents
Senior Health
Senior Living Options
Finances & Legal
Products for Seniors
About Us
A pink banner with the OurParents logo

How to Recognize When You’re in Denial About Your Parents’ Health

Written by Sarah Stevenson
 about the author
5 minute readLast updated April 5, 2023

Your parents spent their life caring for you, and you likely see them as strong, independent people. It can be difficult to admit that things are changing, and that they’re no longer able to care for themselves. But pretending nothing has changed, or rationalizing your loved one’s new behaviors can harm you both. Although it’s a normal human reaction, denial can lead to delays in treatment, future health concerns, and long-term difficulties. Learn more about the signs of denial and how to work through it.

Let our care assessment guide you

Our free tool provides options, advice, and next steps based on your unique situation.

Denial: How and Why It Happens

Denial can have a deliberate component or be unconscious, but either way, it involves a lack of acknowledgment of something going on around you. You may be refusing to recognize a problem or stressful situation or be minimizing its severity. Sometimes, the situation you’re in denial about can be obvious to others — to a direct caregiver, for instance, in the case of a parent’s health.
Understanding what denial is and why it occurs is an important first step in recognizing whether we ourselves are experiencing it — and it helps us realize that denial is a normal human reaction.

Let our care assessment guide you

Our free tool provides options, advice, and next steps based on your unique situation.

According to Psychology Today, “Denial is a defense mechanism in which an individual refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences. It’s an unconscious process that serves to protect the person from discomfort or anxiety.”
Simply becoming aware of denial is an important move forward and an opportunity to change our own and our parent or senior loved one’s situation for the better.

How to Recognize Denial in Yourself and Others

When other family members or friends can’t recognize that a senior loved one needs more care than they can get at home, it can be a frustrating experience for their caregivers. Unfortunately, denial can be even more pernicious when we are experiencing it ourselves, as we may not be conscious of our inability to accept the situation.
If that’s the case, how can we alert ourselves to recognizing if there’s a problem?
There are some signs to look out for if you have a parent or senior loved one whose health may be worsening:
  • Feeling stuck. “If you don’t seem to be making much progress dealing with a stressful situation on your own,” says the Mayo Clinic, you may be stuck in denial about the severity of the problem.
  • Getting angrier than usual. “You are suppressing your feelings when you’re in denial so your anger and many other feelings will be much more intense than usual,” says the Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU Medical Center, Carol Berman, M.D.
  • Ignoring signs of a health problem. For example, if your parent has begun dropping things or tripping while walking, these may be signs of an impaired nervous system, says Dr. Berman. If you find yourself ignoring symptoms, you may want to reevaluate the situation with a physician.
  • Pretending nothing has changed. Your senior loved one might not be able to do the things he or she used to do — drive a car, or walk somewhere unaccompanied — particularly if dementia is involved. It’s not reasonable or safe to expect them to do so.
  • Rationalizing behavior. Do you try to explain it away whenever your parent does something unusual? Again, not accepting that a senior loved one’s health has changed could put them in danger of accidents or injuries.

Ways to Move Past Denial

If the situations above have you nodding your head in recognition — or if a trusted family member or friend has suggested you might be in denial — then what’s the next step?

Talk with a Senior Care Advisor

Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.

Use the following strategies for getting your mind around the situation and coming to terms with your own feelings:

1. Reach out for help.

Open up to a counselor, someone you trust or a support group. Remember to involve your parent or senior loved one when it’s time to have that tough conversation. Then, if it’s time for your parent to get help, make an appointment with a health care provider.

2. Take a closer look.

Are you falling back on irrational thoughts about your loved one’s health? Again, be honest with yourself. Think realistically about what will happen if you don’t take action. Will there be negative consequences?

3. Face your fears.

Denial often has its roots in fear. Try to ask yourself honestly what scares you about the situation and allow yourself to express that fear and any other emotions you may have — either with a mental health professional, in a private journal, or with someone you trust.


Meet the Author
Sarah Stevenson

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom (of which OurParents is a trademark) and the reader.  Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site.  Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.