You visit your mother and she mentions a little ache in her lower back. In her seventies, she still rises early to stretch. The brisk walk with Cosmo the dog comes next, and then a sensible breakfast for both of them. But there is that ache. She’s taking more Advil, and has less energy in the afternoons. Because of that “little” pain, not even naps seem to give her enough rest.
And you ask, since you love her, “Is everything okay? Should you see your doctor?”
“Oh, I’m fine!” she says.
Nearing your golden wedding anniversary, your husband often appears short of breath. He’s never been into exercise regimes, and has one of those metabolisms everyone hates. At seventy-two, he can put on the tuxedo worn when you celebrated 25 years of marriage. Now, while doing yard work, his breathing is occasionally labored. You notice he wakes at night more frequently for bathroom trips . . . but he (and his prostate) are getting older. However, on several occasions he didn’t immediately return to bed, but sat on the chair by the closet.
In the dark of the bedroom, you ask, “Are you okay?”
“Just trying to catch my breath,” he reassures.
“Should you see your doctor?”
“Oh, I’m fine!” he says.
At Starbucks, you and your office mate—your BFF since college—gripe about the old boss promoted to a job she didn’t deserve and the new clueless boss. As always, the conversation veers toward holiday plans. For years, your two families have rented a beach cottage before the Thanksgiving-to-New Years mess wrecks the calendar. But your friend has a cough that doesn’t go away. Between sips of mocha latte, you can’t remember when she hasn’t been coughing.
“Are you okay?” you ask. “Lately you’ve been coughing a lot. Should you see your doctor?”
“It’s nothing. Tickle in the throat, a cold that won’t quite go away.” She grins. “I’m fine!
* * *
I have said I don’t have any regrets about how I dealt with my parents as they aged.
It’s a lie.
I tried to visit when my scheduled permitted. I chatted with Mom on the phone every Saturday. Over the years, from the various zip codes I lived as they remained at one address, I sent them letters and cards. Now, after their deaths, I have many of my notes to them tucked in boxes. They were proud parents, and kept seemingly all of my correspondence.
But why didn’t I push Mom more to see a doctor when she started to complain about difficulty going to the bathroom, and how her stomach could feel (just a smidgen) bloated. And how she just didn’t want to eat as much as usual?
I have excellent excuses! Her kind, trusted doctor had retired and she struggled to find a new physician. It’s easier to complain about a new doctor than an old ache. I resided in a different town and talked to her more often than seeing her. It was easy to hear her say “I’m fine” and then chat about a book or movie.
Why didn’t I push more? She ended up with a terrible cancer, so awful when discovered that the doctors had no idea where it began.
How could I so easily believe her when she said, “I’m fine?”
* * *
I don’t wonder about Mom and me, now several years after her death, to rekindle my guilt. I understand why Mom—and my fictional mother with her back pains, the short-of-breath husband, and the best friend that coughed between sips of coffee—said she was “fine.”
Even if your doctor is wonderful, few want to visit her or his office. We’ll get better tomorrow. We have more important stuff to do than fretting over a “silly” cough or a “slight” shortness of breath.
How can you encourage a loved one or friend to abandon “I’m fine” to learn more of what may be wrong?
- Sometimes you can’t. People, after all, are stubborn. (Well, I’m sure you’re the exception.)
- Sometimes, it’s important to offer to go with them, because a date with a doctor is better when someone waits with you.
- We can be persistent, refusing to stop the conversation when our friend/family member plays their “I’m fine” card. Play the next card . . . they might be fine, but you are concerned. Everyone, at some point, needs a squeaky wheel. Be squeaky. Be squeakiest.
- We can—like an intervention with an addict—gather other friends tired of “I’m fine” and let the person see what you’ve all observed: poor health that hasn’t improved on any tomorrow.
But the truth is, far too many of us are darn good at saying, “I’m fine.” We’d rather complain about the health care system than use it. We’d rather have “nice” rather than “difficult” conversations.
“I’m fine” becomes a wall built with fears or procrastination or both. It’s a pleasant room with a closed closet door where monsters may lurk. Better to stay behind the wall, and it’s always better to keep certain doors shut and locked . . . right?
I don’t have magic solutions for helping a loved one to stop claiming, “I’m fine.”
But for the “I’m fine” crowd, be careful with how often you say it.
Is it true? Are you . . . fine?
And if you have doubts, when a friend or family member offers to go with you to the doctor, why not make a date with them?by