How to Talk To Your Aging Parent about Incontinence

Incontinence is one of the topics that adult children find the most difficult to talk with their aging parents about. It’s not surprising, though, when you consider the difficult transition our elderly parents are in. Once the authority figures who took care of us, they are becoming the ones who need care.

To make the situation even more difficult is the embarrassment around incontinence – even though it’s common and affects more than 1 in 5 Canadian seniors.

If you’ve noticed that your parent is struggling with incontinence, you owe it to them to have an honest talk about it and work with them to find a solution. We realize that this is easier said than done, especially if your parent is a proud and private person, so we’ve compiled some tips that may help.

Tips to help you talk to your parent about incontinence

Upholding your parent’s dignity with understanding, patience, and respect is crucial when talking with them about a topic as sensitive as incontinence. Your help may not be well received at first and could be met with emotions ranging from embarrassment to anger, and even sadness.

The following may help make the conversation and easier one for you both:

Refrain from using the word “diaper”

While they are often referred to as “adult diapers”, the word “diaper” is associated with babies who are unable to care for themselves. A parent grappling with a loss of independence is likely to rebel against your treating them like a baby – even if that’s not at all what you’re doing.

Family caregivers and professional in-home caregivers should be urged to refer to these products by other names. Some examples are “disposable underwear” or “adult briefs”.

Tactfully explain that you’ve noticed

Decreased senses of smell and sight are a natural part of aging. As such, some seniors don’t even realize just how noticeable their incontinence is to others.

Many seniors will do their best to manage incontinence on their own and others may simply be in denial and opt to ignore the issue entirely. Letting them know that you’ve noticed an odor or stains may help them realize that it’s time to find a solution.

Be gentle and tactful, and be careful not to use words or a tone that could be perceived as shaming.

Be ready to provide samples

Having samples of incontinence products on hand is a good idea, but gauge their reaction to the situation before you pull them out.

If your parent seems open to your help, then by all means show them samples of some of the different products available so that they can make their own choice.

If, on the other hand, your parent is having a hard time accepting the situation and your help, offer to take them to the store so they can see the options themselves.

Learn why incontinence happens

Do your homework and learn about incontinence before bringing it up to your parent. Rather than implying that it’s just something that happens to “old people”, help them understand that there’s more to it than just getting old and losing control.

Incontinence is not a condition, but a symptom. Perhaps it’s a symptom related to an existing condition, such as diabetes or a neurologic disorder. Often, incontinence in older adults is simply the result of muscles that stretch and weaken over the years, affecting the bladder’s ability to store urine.

An explanation as to why it can happen can help take a lot of the shame and embarrassment out of it.

Enlist outside help

Accepting help or advice from your child isn’t easy, especially for a parent already struggling with the fear of losing their independence. Your parent may be less likely to discredit advice given by a professional, such as their doctor or a home health care provider.

A professional can explain the potential health issues that can arise from poor hygiene, such as the risk of skin and urinary tract infections. Sure, you can explain it, too, but sometimes hearing it from a professional can make all the difference.

Speaking of professionals…

While incontinence is common in older adults, it’s important that your parent see a doctor about any new or worsening trouble holding their urine. A doctor can rule out a serious underlying medical condition and may be able to spot lifestyle habits that may be contributing to urinary incontinence.

Things like drinking too much at once, certain types of beverages, or not getting enough fiber and ending up constipated can make it hard to hold your bladder.

A professional caregiver can often spot these things, as well. In-home senior care can also assist with personal hygiene and bathing, dressing, and more.

Heather Goba, RN, BScN
Director of Care

Living Assistance Services – Senior Home Care




Article Resources
Seniors and Aging – Bladder Control Problems (Incontinence). Government of Canada.