Why older people talk about their ailments


The six Taylor sisters being schooled at home during a polio epidemic

Aunt Beulah posed (indirectly) a fascinating question in her latest blog post:

Why, as we grow older, do we feel the urge to discuss our health problems at length, when as children we never did?

So many hypotheses rushed into my head that I was forced to share them immediately. Oh dear. So that means I’m a case in point…

These hypotheses are warped by my early life as a cheerful healthy kid with five healthy sisters in the 1940s. My thoughts are bound to be misguided or outright wrong. Tell me, I can take it!

  1. (Worst first.) Our world has shrunk. We are less interested in the outside world and  more interested in ourselves. So we assume the big world is equally interested in our ailments. Ouch. Please let that not be true!
  2. We were strong healthy children. So most health problems were due to “childhood ailments” which we would, by definition, grow out of. By contrast, after middle age any ailment might be, probably is, a sign that we are getting older, and there’s only one way this can end. So we talk about our ailments to stave off decrepitude and death.
  3. Colds, flu, scarlet fever, chicken pox and measles were infectious and non-selective.  With every epidemic our family got a job-lot, six for the price of one. There was nothing individual about being sick, nothing interesting. If I was sick, so were Jill, Deirdre, Prue, Lesley and Penny. Now we feel alone with each new ailment, and we talk about them for company and reassurance.
  4. We’ve lived beyond Doctor-Knows-Best to the Do-It-Yourself era of health maintenance. For every whiff of an ailment we can instantly get 100 solutions on the internet. There is a heck of a lot more information that can be shared, so we share it.
  5. We have a scientific interest in the state of our body and wish to optimize its efficiency for the years ahead. We love being alive and want to make the most of it. So we talk about how to manage our ailments.
  6. We sympathize with friends who have ailments and want to offer support. So we enable their health-talk.

A friend of mine, Elisabeth, lamented the deterioration of a precious relationship. She and her friend (let’s call her Valerie) used to have exciting spirited passionate wide-ranging intellectual conversations every time they met. Now … each entire outing would be filled by Valerie’s health-talk. Not a single other topic was discussed.

Now that’s bad. Endlessly ruminating over health problems must be one of the worst things you can do for your health. It’s boring, and it throws the relationship out of whack — unfair division of time and topic!

I’m pretty interested in the workings of mind and brain, and I am my only available case study, so I’m at risk of becoming a Valerie. But I do have a private rule: no more than 5 minutes per meeting per person may be spent discussing health problems, whether they be bunions or cancer.

This rough and ready private and flexible rule does not preclude sympathy or empathy. But sometimes a change of topic is as good as a dose of aspirin.

Do read Aunt Beulah’s article which stimulated me to think about this! It’s talk about health talk, very funny and wise.

57 thoughts on “Why older people talk about their ailments

  1. Dan Antion says:

    I hope it’s mostly 5 & 6.

  2. Let’s be kind to ourselves and say so. And please don’t stop your variety of health talk!

  3. I have one friend who seems to have the same maladies I do. I have learned to go to her for information first. Consequently we always have the health talk but we do it first before we eat our mac and cheese (or whatever). We have shared some interesting information. Other friends I don’t mention when I have a new thing or have been sick. Either they are not interested or I’m not interested in sharing. When we were kids, being sick wasn’t important. We got over it and things got back to normal fast. Your points hold pretty true.

    1. What a good plan. You’re selective and strategic. I like that.

      1. Hmmm…strategic! I like that. I hadn’t thought it that way but I am.

  4. Bernadette says:

    I think misery is always looking for company.

    1. Alas that is likely true. But what sort of company serves misery best?

      1. Bernadette says:

        The kind that takes pleasure in misery. Also the kind that think misery is a contest.

      2. Oh yes. Best not to marry them.

  5. rachelkatipo says:

    I think that we talk about what it is new or important in our lives. So when you have your first baby it’s endless baby talk, when you have a new job then it’s that, when you have a new ailment then I guess that comes top of mind. If you’re sleep deprived I think your world shrinks too, you don’t have the energy to care about whatever else is happening in the world let alone talk about it. If your ailments lead to sleep deprivation you’ve got a double whammy.

    1. That’s a wise comment. I will think about that one thank you.

    2. Rachel, you have reminded me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only when the basic needs are met can we look beyond them. After this post and all the readers’ comments I will never listen to ailment-talk again without wondering what lies behind it.

  6. Aunt Belulah always gets me thinking too. Your points are good and I try to keep to 5 and 6, and re the Internet I remember someone wise like my grandmother saying that too little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the flood of information from the net is worse as we need to be able to differentiate between the facts and the untruths. Luckily my friends and I manage to restrict our time talking about health and talk about many other things as well.

    1. Aunt Beulah is a champion writer! You have good friends I think. When it comes to restricting health-talk and taking turns, good manners take care of both but it takes two to play!

  7. lifecameos says:

    Just been to Aunt Beulah’s website. Hilarious ! Thank you for the introduction, I am now following her. I am cautious about discussing my ailments as there are three family members slightly younger than me who who have serious genetically driven medical conditions that I can not hope to surpass, and I hope I never do. It does mean that there is much less interest in my ailments as well. So I try not to mention them.

    1. I hope you have one confidante with equal self restraint! Glad you enjoy Aunt Beulah’s blog.

      1. lifecameos says:

        The younger family members have far too much to discuss to worry about ailments, so they give me varied conversation.

      2. That’s perfect then!

  8. Reblogged this on .

  9. Over the holidays, I was reading all of the Christmas cards my parents had received. I commented to my father that everyone seemed to write about their ailments, but nothing else. I’m always open to listening, but I’m not a fan of people who post every little ache and pain on Facebook.
    Great photograph, Rachel!

    1. That is sad. I hold on to my role models — not exactly stiff upper lip, but interested in others to the end.

  10. Glynis Jolly says:

    I’m wondering if the urgency to talk about failing health is brought on by fear. As we get older, the issues become more frequent, and of course, maybe, constant. I’m one of those few, though, who don’t want to talk about my health issues, except to explain why I’m not doing one thing or the other. And it is a case of fear. If I keep it under wraps, maybe it will go away.

    1. This is another (kinder) way of stating reason no. 2. Thank you. Fear looms large, of course. Denial has its merits!

  11. I love this post – it is so true – it is bad for our mental and physical health – and separates us from the real world –
    I have a question – I write a blog too -www.readytolivelonger.com and I was wondering if I could post this blog on my website? of course crediting you.My readers could certainly benefit from this- thank you

    1. Please do share the blog post Brigitte. I appreciate a share and will visit your blog right away.

      1. Thank you Rachel I did – I like your approach to the positive – have a good day

      2. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Reblogged this on Ready to Live Longer and commented:
    A great article helping us to concentrate on life not our sickness

  13. Aunt Beulah says:

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful follow-up to my blog, Rachel, and for your kind referrals to it. I think our tendency to talk about our illnesses is a combination of all your reasons; I know each one of them could apply to me at various times. I also know I’m going to adopt you “rough and ready private and flexible rule.” It’s perfect.

    1. I have learned through this exercise. Next time I am at the receiving end I will be thinking, this may be fear…

  14. Val says:

    I have an older-than-me relative who, every time I phone her, talks about her ailments. She would continue to talk about them if I didn’t re-route the conversation along other lines and so this is what I do. It’s partly so that I don’t fall into a pit of depression listening to her (as constant talk of illness tends to make me feel helpless and unable to help the one suffering) and partly to cheer her up. I’ve realised that many people – really regardless of age but it does seem to get worse with age – just get stuck in a sort of inward spiral once they start talking about their bad health and it’s mostly because they have been in such bad pain that they are too focussed on that and little else. So I talk about her memories, things she knows that I don’t , her outside interests – I bring to her mind other things, things she enjoys and gradually her mood lightens and the health-talk stops.

    Why does it happen more with older people than younger? The ‘light’ answer, as I said in a comment in Janet’s blog (Aunt Beulah) is that when we’re young it’s not ‘cool’ to talk about health, meaning that as we shed that sense of superficiality we concentrate on the minutae of our individual lives instead. The more serious answer is that as older people, we know our bodies, are intimate with our bodies’ concerns, so we share what we know others of our age also know. Also, as getting older is as new to us, daily, as adolescence was when we first experienced it, we need some shared point of reference and bad health often provides it.

    1. What a wise and compassionate answer. You understand yourself and your relative well. That’s a good tip — If we are aware of the toxic dynamics at work, it’s our job to listen for a bit then to steer the conversation elsewhere. But I hate it when I feel my role in friendship is becoming 100% counselling 100% of the time… that’s another risk.

      1. Val says:

        I completely agree with you, Rachel – friendship shouldn’t be about counselling (though a part of friendship always is). A good friendship is so much more, so full.

  15. Thank you for that it’s time that I contained my ‘Valerie’ to 5 mins.

    1. I apologize to everyone called Valerie–a beautiful name that means (I think) “health”.

  16. Robyn Haynes says:

    I think good conversation is like a butterfly, alighting on one topic then darting to another. Knowing how long to dwell on any one place is the secret.

    1. A lovely image! I find it interesting that not everyone is conscious of group (or dyad) dynamics, so that sometimes you need to keep the butterfly in harness. Or maybe it’s all about manners…

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        Manners definitely, because some are never going to be able to handle the ‘art’ of conversation. Rachel, I posed your question about older people talking about ailments to a group of friends (older) last night. It caused quite a stir with everyone having their opinions (talking over the top of each other, debating loudly and coming very close to unruly rabble as only good friends can). Perhaps our tipple of choice had something to do with it?

      2. What a wonderful scene! I am so happy to hear that you did not achieve consensus. Keeps life interesting.

      3. Robyn Haynes says:

        Absolutely true!

  17. roshendalal says:

    I don’t talk about my health–I don’t visit doctors. Its a policy that helps! And as I grow older the personal self matters less and less.

    1. Interesting. I can relate to that. Does this policy derive from Hindu religion or is it a personal preference or both maybe?

      1. roshendalal says:

        No–it derives from having had a lot of illnesses–and I began to be viewed as someone weak–determined to get over it, and this was one of the ways. I am not a Hindu, though certainly Hindu philosophy is something I deeply appreciate.

      2. Thank you. That makes a lot of sense.

  18. Gary says:

    Fascinating reading. It is a strange thing this age related ailment speak. As a child, I felt invulnerable…illness was there to get over it, maybe miss school…bonus….we had measles and chicken pox parties…one in all in. Delusions of deity like immune systems. The only folk with terrible stuff were all old relatives or neighbours. I know that’s a sweeping generalisation but that’s the youth impression of a healthy self. Getting older moves mortality up to the fore….immortality seems a long way off, roads end draws closer so could it be we pay more attention to ailments, worry more that it might not just be feeling ill, but something more sinister?

    Stepping into a surgery used to be where you went to get fixed, now it might be where they tell you somethings proper gone wrong…best not go kind of thing, just in case.

    Also, getting older makes one realise the youth bubble is pretty small. Eyes open on a wider world and you start realising not everyone has been fortunate with health….paediatric wards filled with those facing terrible illness with such bravery, cancer wards age not relevant and a few that have touched my family that I find hard, even now, to talk about….is it these things and maturing that give out understanding and empathy…or is it direct experience that wakes it up?

    Excellent post Rachel

    1. You’ve written here a suspiciously accurate story of my own relationship with illness and ailments. I appreciate this: thanks! I don’t have an answer to your last question of course. Maybe both. Roshendalal’s comments gives another perspective, helping me to understand the great variety in our experiences and in how we decide to respond.

  19. I’m sure you’re right, but add at least one more factor: personality — which inturn is shaped by experience, but nevertheless we are all born different. I’m sad about your mother, her suffering, and how it affected you. One of my friends died recently of MND, and another of MS, so I have had the tiniest glimpse into that world. I’m no better for that but it does force growth.

    1. Gary says:

      How odd, you replied to my reply and yet my reply seems to be missing! Yes personality is an interesting one. All born different yes, but also susceptible to a perception based on nurture which, in turn, has a tremendous affect on belief. My relatives all hailed from Yorkshire and were avid Labour supporters. When I asked why at the ripe age of 14 it was met with disbelief….conclusion….my family tended to do what other family members did. I consider that a loose case of indoctrination….told to believe something, add be ration if you dare challenge it et voila there is an ingrained personality trait in the making. Many people just go with the flow rather than challenge it. One might be contentious and add religious disposition to that example too. I will wager most people believe what their parents told them to.

      Obviously that is all based on the formative years….moving into teens and beyond a person has two options….continue the nurture founded traits and thinking or step out of the box and challenge things to seek out the truth or form a new way of thinking based on ones own informed choice. I guess that’s where individualism starts. The point at which you challenge accepted information and interpret it differently.

      Fascinating discussion mind….it can go tangential at each comment!

      1. Too true — and now , Rachel, back to work! WordPress occasionally appears to delete items. On good days they self-restore so cross your fingers.

      2. Gary says:

        Very true, I’ve had to check junk folders every so often as people that have been approved occasiinally get filtered for some bizarre reason! And yes…back to work lol…or in my case finishing that novel 😱

  20. Joared says:

    I think for a lot of older people much illness hasn’t been experienced in their life, or it’s for a short period of time compared to old age when illness, or whatever, may exist pretty much year around. Possibly just a combination of items you mention.

    1. Yes I suppose it is puzzling. Maybe we need time to adjust.

  21. JF says:

    Apparently, I am not old enough. I am not interested in discussion of mine or anyone else health problems. But… I am ready to ask a doctor
    or to help a friend if I know what must be done.

    1. Hats off to you. You must have noticed this syndrome in people you know, but clearly you don’t enable it.

  22. gertloveday says:

    You made me laugh remembering someone I worked with who used to talk proudly about “my op”. it was one of the highlights of her life. Young people don’t have so many reasons to talk about such things, but it seems to me we are all so interested in ourselves that if there is a medical drama starring us, whatever age, we like to talk about it.

  23. You’ve summed it up, I think. And made me laugh in turn, thanks!