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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.
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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.
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.