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Difficult Conversations: How to Talk to Someone About Incontinence

Effective ways to approach a sensitive topic

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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Incontinence in a relative or someone else close to you is impossible to ignore: the odor, the mess, the cleanup. Ironically, the subject is often ignored anyway -- at least for a while -- because of the complicated emotions connected to a loss of bodily control. Embarrassment and frustration may feed denial on either side. And because urination and elimination are so personal, awkwardness about broaching the issue can feel almost paralyzing.

Looking after someone in failing health is fraught with tough conversations. But as challenging as unfamiliar and emotionally charged topics can be -- especially those that tend to flip our usual family dynamics -- they don't have to be forbiddingly uncomfortable. Talking is almost always better than ignoring, provided you prep yourself first on what to say and how to say it.

Before you say a word

Talking about incontinence successfully starts with careful thinking.

Know your role. If you're going to help someone, you need to be perceived as being helpful. "Be the person's advocate, not an adversary," says geriatric psychiatrist and internist Ken Robbins, a Caring.com senior medical editor. Anytime you feel strongly that a behavior is unsanitary, unsafe, or otherwise problematic, it's wise to get a third party involved. This sidesteps nagging and arguments and instead gives you the role of supporter, helping the person follow someone else's advice.

This distinction is especially useful with a touchy issue like incontinence. "It's hard to stick to a calm discussion where you're kind and supportive when you're thinking, 'Dang it, this is the eleventh night in a row he's peed in the bed!'" Robbins says.

Know your goal. With incontinence, the caregiver's number-one job isn't to coax the person into adult diapers -- it's first to get the problem assessed by a physician, so you can help the person deal with expert recommendations.

Before deciding on your own that diapers are the solution, it's always wise to get medical clarification of the problem. Many causes of incontinence are easily treatable, including urinary tract infections, prostate problems, medications, and consuming certain foods or drinks.