En español | Natalie was furious with her husband, Sid, who she believed was adjusting poorly to his Parkinson's disease. “Every time I leave the room, he gets up to try to walk without my help and without using his cane,” she said to me during her psychotherapy session. “I know he's trying to prove to himself — and to me — that he's still independent. But doesn't he realize that if he falls, he will get hurt, making things much worse for both of us?"
I nodded my head in sympathy. Trying to prove himself could end catastrophically if Sid shuffled his feet, tripped on a crease in the rug, and crashed to the ground. As famed marriage researchers John and Julie Gottman have found, he would have a more satisfying marital relationship with Natalie — and be safer, too — if he would just listen to her sensible advice.
But I also had sympathy for him. Though I'd never met Sid, I imagined he thought that sitting around was holding him back from keeping his legs limber and strong to beat back Parkinson's disease. He sounded like a lot of other proud men I'd met who weren't wild-eyed risk-takers but who believed they were fighting their best fight by being active, not timid and sedentary.
Join today and get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
In truth, he reminded me of me. Whenever I've had periods of convalescence — for instance, after suffering a severely herniated disc in my back — I rejected my doctors’ advice and my wife's pleas and kept moving. When I fell down a flight of steps, I was lucky I didn't break a limb. But like other stubborn men before me, I had to test myself to try to prove I was still capable.
Male stubbornness can be strong motivation to overcome or compensate for the effects of illness and disability. But by ignoring symptoms and pushing the limits of their capabilities, these men often put themselves in harm's way while alarming and angering their family caregivers. How can family caregivers help these male care receivers find a tolerable balance between taking heed and taking risks? Here are some ideas:
Beware of triggering defiance
There are men who, when told what they can't do, will immediately become fiercely determined to show they can. The more that doctors sternly lecture them and spouses harshly scold them, the more reckless the risks they run. Rather than further triggering this bad-boy behavior, wives should avoid playing the parental role and instead affirm that it is up to their husbands to use good judgment.
Acknowledge the emotions
The losses of free movement and physical prowess are blows to many a male ego, no matter how old the man is. It is likely underlying grief and anger about those losses that compels these men to break the rules. If their wives can gently bring up those feelings and help them grieve together as a couple, then their husbands are less likely to act them out rebelliously.
Recognize the good impulses
Injured men who never try to stir from their armchairs may be prudently cautious or sunk in despair. Those who strive to do more are at least showing spunk. That energy can be channeled to help them prove themselves in more adaptive ways. For example, it's the same impulse to walk without assistance when their wives aren't looking that inspires some men to give their utmost in physical therapy, pushing themselves hard to do their exercises and thereby maximizing whatever potential they have for recovery.
Allow time for acceptance
It takes men time — often upwards of a year — to fully accept a challenging medical diagnosis, such as Parkinson's disease. They may have the tendency at first to try to deny or minimize it. Testing themselves to prove their capabilities is part of that process. Sometimes they must have a few well-earned falls and bumps to learn the hard way about the new reality of their limitations.
You are friend, not foe
Men who, even after many months, can't accept a diagnosis may continue to misdirect their frustrations by bucking the directions of their family caregivers. Remind them at every opportunity that their struggles are your struggles, too. You walk together; you fall together. What happens to one immediately affects the other. Assure them that the best way forward as a couple and family is by supporting one another to live as well as possible. Your comfort, not anger, is the salve that can heal hurt men.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.