How to set up the conversation
Your first incontinence discussion should simply do two things: raise the point that there seems to be a problem, and encourage the person to agree to a medical evaluation.
To set the scene for success:
Figure out who should do the talking. Is it you? Maybe, if you have a close, minimally-contentious relationship or already handle doctor visits. Also consider if the person might feel more comfortable discussing personal hygiene and/or medical problems with someone else -- for example, an adult son or daughter of the same gender, or a close friend.
Picture the person's conflict style. We all respond differently in situations that involve negotiation. Reflect on how the person has reacted when asked to do things in the past: Is he or she usually open-minded? Easily angered? Or someone who simply clams up? Anticipating a reaction helps you work around it. For example, if the person tends to greet your suggestions with anger because he or she feels like you're being controlling, take extra care not to get angry yourself, or you won't get anywhere.
Pick a pleasant time. Potentially awkward conversations tend to go better when people are doing something they enjoy, such as playing cards or engaging in a hobby. Activities like driving or walking have the added advantage of not requiring eye contact, which often helps people open up. People tend to deal with contentious subjects especially well while being fed, Robbins says.
Rehearse your tone. Aim for a casual, empathetic, matter-of-fact tone of voice. "People tend to feel they'll shame their relative by bringing up incontinence, but the only way you can have a productive conversation is to be straightforward," Robbins says. If you show your discomfort, you'll only make the other person more uncomfortable.
The reality is, incontinence isn't about willfulness, spite, or lack of conscious control; it's a medical issue.
So how to plunge in?
Try a gentle, indirect route. "Gee, Marylou said her mom was having problems with incontinence and then she found out it was a urinary tract infection. I can see this has been a problem for you lately, too -- what do you think about seeing a doctor about it, like she did? Apparently there are a lot of easily fixable problems that cause it."
Empathize. "I wish this wasn't happening to you, too. But something's not right, and the doctor can figure out what it is, so you don't have more accidents."
Let the person know they'll be helping you out. "I'm really worried about you. I wouldn't want you to wind up with some kind of complication we don't know about, so it would put my mind to rest if you had the problem checked out."