Ask Amy: Sharing medical details online violates privacy

Tribune Media ServicesNovember 21, 2012 

DEAR AMY: An acquaintance and "Facebook friend" has recently returned to her hometown to care for her mother in what is assumed will be her final illness.

She has asked for the online love and support of her friends, which we are most willing to give. However, I am horrified that this friend shares the most personal details of her mother's ordeal, including her incontinence and paranoid hallucinations, in regular posts.

Exposing an ill and defenseless woman in this way to hundreds of strangers seems a deeply disrespectful act by an otherwise loving and self-sacrificing daughter.

I'm so upset by this that I have considered drawing up legal papers stating that if I ever need this type of care, and family members aren't willing to respect my dignity and privacy, that I be cared for by professionals who are bound by patient confidentiality. What are your views on this, Amy? — Mortified

DEAR MORTIFIED: I share your mortification. And having experienced the joys and stresses of caretaking, I attest that the caretaker doesn't just see to someone else's medical needs; protecting the loved one's privacy and dignity is also important.

The thing is that when you are taking care of someone in extremis, that person's symptoms become your own ticker tape news feed. And just as some new parents overshare, it seems that illness and caring for someone at the end of life can lead to similar impulses.

Your friend might not realize that every post she writes is seen not only by her Facebook friends but by a potentially almost limitless number of other people who occupy her friends' Facebook circles. Or this is simply the only way she has to relieve her own anxiety and stress.

You might ask your friend if she wants help to adjust her privacy settings to limit the circle of people who can see and share this deeply personal information.

I agree you should use this experience as an opportunity to explore this issue with your own family. They should be told how you feel about this and respect your wishes to the end.

DEAR AMY: Last Saturday we invited some old friends to our home for dinner. We have known this couple for 35 years but have not seen them for a while. They were in town for a few days, so we invited them over.

I worked quite hard to prepare a lovely dinner and pride myself in my culinary skills. When they arrived, they came empty-handed. I initially did not give it a second thought, but later I wondered why they did not even bring a bottle of wine.

My husband and I were taught to always bring a small token of appreciation to our host. Have times changed? Should I adjust my thinking? — Linda

DEAR LINDA: It might help for you to remember why you hosted this dinner. Surely your motive was to extend your own hospitality and generosity. I know of no requirement to bring a gift to a meal. It is definitely a polite and gracious gesture, but it is not necessarily rude to come empty-handed.

Focus on the success of the meal and generosity of your own gesture, and cut your friends some slack.

DEAR AMY: "Anguished Mother" wrote about her daughter-in-law's efforts to completely isolate her husband from his family. This mom said the daughter-in-law kept a "grievance journal" outlining what she perceived were the parents' slights over the years.

There were many unanswered questions in this letter, and I take issue with your conclusion that this husband is an abused spouse. I can't help but wonder what part the parents have played in this estrangement. — Wondering

DEAR WONDERING: As I noted in my answer, the "grievance journal" sent a shiver up my spine. I took that as evidence that this wife was particularly vindictive.

(Send questions via e-mail to askamytribune.com or by mail to Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. Amy Dickinson's memoir, "The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter and the Town that Raised Them" (Hyperion), is available in bookstores.) 

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