Why does my mother talk about health issues -- in excruciating detail?

A fellow caregiver asked...
My 85-year-old mother has cataracts and arthritis, but given her age, she's in fairly good health. Still, she seems to be obsessed with health -- hers and everyone else's. She passes on the details of every medical appointment and test result, then she proceeds to describe this friend's cancer treatment or that friend's husband's Alzheimer's diagnosis. I find these conversations to be boring and depressing. Why is health is such an all-consuming topic for my mother, and how should I deal with it?

Expert Answer

David Solie is an author, educator, speaker, and thought leader in geriatric and intergenerational communication. His book How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap With Our Elders is a landmark text that has been read and reread by legions of baby boomers searching for a better approach to working with their parents and other older adults.

It's common for elderly people to talk about health and illness -- and just as common for their children to be exasperated by these discussions.

Although your mother may not have major health problems herself, at 85, many of the people she knows are coping with serious illnesses and many others have likely died. Think of your circle of close friends and family members, and imagine what it would be like if most of them became gravely ill over a short period of time. This is a common experience for people your mother's age, and even if it's to be expected, that doesn't make the losses less devastating.

Psychologist Mary Pipher has called illness "the battleground of old age." Seen in this light, it's easier to understand why your mother talks so much about health issues. It's her way of coping with the losses she's endured and of working through her fears about her own physical decline.

You can support your mother by listening and asking questions that will help her come to terms with her experience and her fears. For example, if your mother talks a lot about a friend's cancer treatment, ask her about that friend, how they met, and what their friendship has meant to her. Encourage her to visit her friend, if possible, or to check in by letter or telephone.

Of course, the experiences of those around her can't help but make your mother worry about her own health. Talk to her about these worries and make sure she has regular medical check-ups to ease her mind. You might also want to introduce the subject of death and help her express her feelings about what's to come and how she hopes to handle it.

Understanding why your mother is telling you about Evelyn's blood disease or Mr. Thompson's diverticulitis won't necessarily make these conversations any more tolerable. Try to listen carefully and ask questions that will help your mother articulate her concerns, and then move on to other topics. If she keeps steering the conversation back to health concerns, you can let her know -- gently but firmly -- that you're ready to talk about something else.

It's possible that your mother's obsession with health is a sign that she has too much time on her hands. Try to help her develop some new activities so she'll feel more engaged. Encourage her to drop in at the local senior center, for example, where she can participate in classes and make social connections. If she's up to it, she may be able to find volunteer work that she finds rewarding. Help her stay in touch with friends by arranging transportation or writing letters for her if vision is a problem.

You may find that if your mother has a chance to articulate and understand her fears, and she has other things to focus on, health issues will become less of a preoccupation.