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What to do if you're worried about a loved one's health

The most surprising people bury their heads in the sand where their health is concerned. They may be hoping it will all go away; or terrified of hearing bad news; or kidding themselves there's nothing wrong. So how do you help a loved one who seems to be in denial?

Perhaps the most emotional day of my 25-year career as a medical broadcaster came on the day of Radio 2's 50th anniversary in September 2017. The Jeremy Vine show rang me with the suggestion of doing a health special on their 50th anniversary on 'Radio 2 saved my life'. A listener who'd been diagnosed early with bowel cancer after hearing my advice had got in touch. Sadly, they told me, he and his wife couldn't join us as they were on holiday, but did I have any other tales?

Over the next few days, I received several slightly odd phone calls asking about when I'd be arriving for the show, whether I would mind being filmed for the 50th anniversary, etc. Looking back, I should have smelled a rat - but when Jeremy Vine asked me on air what I would say to this couple if they could hear, I was still blissfully unaware that three generations of our listener's family were hiding outside the studio, waiting to come in and surprise me. It's moments like that which make all the early mornings and hard work worthwhile.

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Denial is common

But not every listener takes note - either of what they hear, see or read, or of what their body is telling them. All doctors see patients who don't want, or are too scared, to admit they're ill. Alcohol problems are a classic case. Alcohol is highly addictive, and people with serious problems will know all about the cravings that go with withdrawal. They might even have tried to stop by themselves, and failed. They need your help.

The idea of having dementia is terrifying, too. People worry about losing their independence or becoming a burden on their families. But dementia can also affect your ability to think logically, and someone with early dementia may not recognise the importance of getting help early.

A gentle push

As a loved one, the last thing you should do is sit back. They need your support, but they also need a gentle push from you to take the first step. The ideal is to get your loved one onside. You might find they've been having exactly the same thoughts, and it's a huge relief to them to be able to share their concerns. And do remember that your loved one may be having the same concerns as you, but might not want to burden you.

  • Do your own research, so you know about all the treatments and help available for the condition you think they might have.

  • Find a quiet time, with no distractions, and remind them how much you care about them.

  • Let them know you're always there to support them and only want the best for them.

  • Ask them if they have any health concerns, and see if they open up.

  • Bring up the subject of the condition you're worried about, and ask what they know about it.

  • Explain your concerns calmly, and ask whether they have had any similar worries.

  • Offer to go with them to speak to a doctor.

  • If they still refuse to discuss it, consider enlisting the help of other family members, but be very conscious that they may get defensive if they feel you're ganging up on them.

It's crucial to remember that doctors take confidentiality extremely seriously. If a patient tells me something about their health, I couldn't break their confidence even if I wanted to, as long as they're mentally competent.

But while a doctor can't talk, they can always listen. So if your loved one refuses to seek help despite your best efforts, share your concerns with the doctor. Even if your GP can't give out information about your loved one without their consent, they can still give general guidance. They'll be on the alert next time they see them, and should be able to steer the subject round. Keep talking, keep supporting - you know they're worth it.

Many thanks to My Weekly where this was originally published.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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