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Overcoming the Stigma Around Elderly Incontinence

by Richard Bitner
Overcoming the Stigma Around Elderly Incontinence

It’s no secret that growing older comes with certain challenges. One of the most common is elderly incontinence. How common? According to the CDC, roughly half of non-institutionalized seniors experience bladder or bowel control challenges. Of those in nursing homes, more than a third of seniors experience incontinence issues each week. Overcoming the Stigma Around Elderly Incontinence
Which begs the question: if incontinence among the elderly is so common, why do we still attach such a damaging stigma to the problem? Overcoming the Stigma Around Elderly Incontinence
“The way we talk about incontinence is really, really backwards,” says Larry Meigs, Visiting Angels CEO and President, Larry Meigs. “And that’s if we talk about it at all.” Overcoming the Stigma Around Elderly Incontinence
Every day, Visiting Angels caregivers work with thousands of Americans who experience incontinence. We believe it’s time that Americans had an honest conversation about incontinence — what it means, how we think about it, and the way we treat those who experience it.

Understanding Elderly Incontinence

Millions of seniors have elderly incontinence in common. But among those millions of cases, the types and causes of incontinence vary significantly. Incontinence can be triggered by a wide array of root conditions, and it can present itself in different ways from person to person.
Many cases of incontinence are simply due to bladder or bowel muscles that have weakened over time. All of us lose muscle mass and strength as we age. It’s no surprise that the muscles we depend on for control of our bladders and bowels also suffer loss of strength.
In other cases, nervous system damage from conditions such as Parkinson’s can make it hard for seniors to control their bladders and/or bowels. Sometimes, medications for other conditions can trigger incontinence issues. And in other instances, mobility issues can prevent seniors from reaching the bathroom on time.
The ways that incontinence presents itself can be as varied as its underlying causes. Most of the time, seniors suffer from stress incontinence — small or significant urine leakages caused by laughing, sneezing, exercise, or fright. But incontinence can also be triggered by overfull bladders or bowels, by trouble getting to the bathroom, or because our bodies don’t warn us in time (or at all) about bathroom urges.

How We Think About Incontinence

Even if the causes and types of incontinence are varied, all cases share at least one thing in common: nobody who suffers from incontinence does so by choice.
Despite this, people still somehow treat incontinence as if it’s a personal failing. The problem is so widespread that it’s become the focus of academic research. In studying the stigma associated with incontinence, researchers have found that many people treat incontinence as if it’s a failure of self-control. Others have found that the stigma goes beyond incontinence, with seniors experiencing criticism from loved ones and friends for going to the bathroom more often or with more urgency than others.
This kind of stigma has a destructive effect on quality of life for incontinence sufferers. The stigma associated with incontinence has been associated with anxiety, depression, and social isolation — impacting the physical, mental, and emotional health of seniors.
Incontinence stigma makes it harder for seniors to enjoy social interactions. It deprives them of self-worth. And it decreases their chance of seeking and receiving help for health problems.
In the words of Larry Meigs: “The stigma attached to incontinence is harmful for too many seniors. As a society, we need to change the way we approach and talk about this issue.”

Reducing Stigma Around Incontinence

There’s an obvious reason why incontinence has such stigma attached to it. Put simply, most of us are uncomfortable discussing bladder and bowel functions. Because we think of these functions as embarrassing, we think of problems associated with these functions in the same way.
To overcome the stigma around incontinence, we need to be better at overcoming our embarrassment around basic bodily functions. Everybody goes to the bathroom, and anybody could one day suffer from bladder or bowel control problems. These problems might be unpleasant, but they shouldn’t be embarrassing for anyone.
That said, a shift in the way we think about incontinence won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, it’s important for each of us to take direct steps to challenge this stigma — particularly those of us who work with, live with, or are friends with sufferers of incontinence.
Here are three specific actions you can take to reduce the stigma around incontinence:

  • Be Compassionate. Think of how you speak about and react to incontinence. Consider how a person who suffers from incontinence might react to those words or reactions. Try to shape your words and actions in a way that is free of judgment and stigma.
  • Show Courage. Don’t act embarrassed about the topic of incontinence or when someone you know suffers an episode of incontinence. Instead, make an effort to speak plainly about incontinence and to treat instances of incontinence as a simple fact of life.
  • Speak Up. If you see or hear someone treating incontinence as embarrassing or stigma-worthy, speak up. Even in private conversation, challenging the stigma attached to incontinence can make a difference.

By taking these small actions, we can all play our part in making incontinence a less sensitive, stigmatized, and harmful issue. It will take time, but it will be worth it.
If you or someone you love requires assistance with incontinence, non-medical in-home care can help make the condition more manageable. For a free in-home care consultation, contact your local Visiting Angels office.
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Overcoming the Stigma Around Elderly Incontinence

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