How do I handle my dad's denial about his diabetes?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My father doesn't think he's sick, even though he was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I have to bug him to take his medications. What can I do?

Expert Answer

Theresa Garnero is clinical nurse manager of Diabetes Services at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Denial has its place: It helps protect people from difficult information. But, as you're finding with your father, it can also get in the way of doing what needs to be done to keep healthy. Still, tread lightly in your efforts to turn this situation around. If you push too hard, you run the risk of alienating your dad, which you don't want to do. Believe it or not, sometimes you can make some headway simply by not using the word diabetes. Start by saying something like, "Dad, your lab results don't look good. Your blood sugar is too high. These medications can help bring it down."

Some people stubbornly refuse to take medications of any kind because they believe a common myth that once you "give in" to prescription drugs, it's a downward spiral to ill health and constant pill popping. But the truth is, if your father didn't have a blood glucose problem, he wouldn't need the treatment. Gently remind him that if he takes his medications, he'll lower his sugar levels, which is a good thing -- the longer his numbers are high, the more damage can be done to his body. But don't focus too much on negative complications, as that may backfire. Instead, try using an analogy he can relate to. For instance, tell him his body isn't functioning as well as it could and it needs drugs to help it work well, just as a car that's out of tune needs its carburetor adjusted.

Another strategy that often works: Link taking his medications to something he enjoys. If he's a golfer, for example, explain that taking his medication will allow him to play at the top of his game -- and enable him to enjoy his hobby, passion, or pastime for a long time to come.

Suggest that your father talk over his resistance to his medications with his diabetes educator, who may recommend a support group that can help. Finally, check to see that there isn't an underlying health reason why he refuses to take medications, such as side effects or long-held myths about medication being harmful. Discuss any such concerns with his doctor. His medication regimen may just need tweaking to help him stick with it.