5 Ways to Cope With the Emotional Side of Incontinence

Best to be blunt: Of course it's awkward and embarrassing to discuss a loved one's incontinence with him or her, let alone to have to change adult diapers (a.k.a. adult briefs these days). Private matters turned team project usually are.

Unfortunately, the net effect of nobody wanting to talk about his or her adult diaper stories is stressful caregiver isolation. A new survey on dealing with incontinence by Caring.com and SCA, makers of Tena incontinence products, finds that one in three caregivers avoids discussing the subject with a loved one altogether because it's too "embarrassing and difficult." (Most of the 500-plus respondents, all caregivers with incontinence-care experience, were boomer-age women.) And 42 percent say they get depressed about dealing with a loved one's incontinence.

That's a disheartening conspiracy of silence. It's also a silence that prevents worn-down caregivers, as well as those struggling with incontinence, from getting the help they need.

So it seems an apt time to highlight some of Caring's "greatest hits" advice on this subject. (Follow the links to more in-depth advice, especially #1.)

1. Know your role: advocate, not adversary.

From Ken Robbins, a geriatric psychiatrist and internist who's a Caring.com senior medical adviser: If you're going to help someone, you need to be perceived as being helpful. 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. Let the person's doctor initially address the incontinence as a medical issue, to get the ball rolling.

2. Screw up the courage to talk straight.

From Ann Cason, founder and director of Circles of Care and author of the book by the same name: Many people try to ignore the subject or use euphemisms, which only makes things more awkward for everyone involved. Better to be matter-of-fact: Everybody spends part of their day urinating and eliminating. As we age, some of us develop problems with our bladder or bowel function. You'll lessen both your embarrassment and that of the person with the trouble if you can remain straightforward and talk about it like the medical issue that it is. It's really a pretty ordinary thing.

More Ways to Talk About Incontinence

3. Lean on humor.

Forty-eight percent of the Caring.com/Tena incontinence survey respondents said they coped with the emotional aspects of the situation by making light of it. A friend told me her 80-something mom appreciated Ann Cason's joke: "Well, I guess now you can be like those glamorous ladies on the TV commercials who are advertising all those protection products!"

4. Develop a motto to see you through awkward moments.

From the Caring.com Forums on incontinence: Caregivers talked a lot in this thread about developing a personal motto to plow through awkward moments. Two I liked: Try it, you'll like it (to a mom who was afraid of incontinence products because she pictured "diapers" and didn't know about all the options now available) and "It is what it is."

5. Remember that the consequences of not speaking up are usually worse than the talk itself.

From an earlier Caring Currents post: Your parent with the erratic driving could kill someone. Your grandparent who forgets to turn off the stove could burn her house down. Your house will soon stink of urine 24/7. Focus on the worst that could happen if you said nothing and let that vision fortify you.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio