Sage Advice: Parkinson's Disease Might Beg Disclosure

By Amy Dickinson | November 19th, 2019

Should a friend's degenerative disease remain a secret?


Friend with Parkinsons Disease Image

Dear Amy: My dearest friend of more than 30 years, “Sarah,” was diagnosed a few years ago with Parkinson’s.

As she is still a very active and successful executive at a big, highly competitive firm, she has chosen to keep her illness secret from everyone but her doctors, her husband, and me. She has not even told her adult sons.

When asked by anyone else about her unsteadiness and shaking hands, Sarah explains that she has essential tremor, a benign condition. However, despite medication, she is becoming noticeably frail, with increasingly obvious tremors, a weakening voice, and an unsteady gait.

Yesterday “Kitty,” a mutual friend, expressed concern and asked me outright if Sarah has Parkinson’s. I said that I understood that she has essential tremor. Kitty wasn’t buying that explanation, and said, with genuine compassion, that it was obvious to her and others that Sarah is suffering from Parkinson’s. I suggested that she express her concern discreetly to Sarah, if she felt it necessary.

My dilemma is whether to let Sarah know that her attempts to conceal her condition are no longer working.

I absolutely don’t want to add to her stress, but I also feel dishonest not discussing the issue with her. What should I do?

– Friend on Shaky Ground

Dear Friend: People with chronic and degenerative diseases often don’t want to disclose their illness for a variety of reasons. Professionally, they fear that disclosure can present a variety of serious challenges, including being discriminated against, not receiving choice assignments, and even being fired.

The Parkinson’s Foundation (parkinson.org) notes that “the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created, in part, to keep employers from discriminating against people with disabilities or certain health conditions when they are hired, on the job, or being fired.” Disclosing sooner rather than later will alert the employer that they are required to make reasonable accommodations.

Your friend has the right to keep her condition private, and her wisdom in disclosing this only to you is obvious: you have taken her privacy very seriously.

Yes, it sounds as if it is time for you to discuss this with her. Simply report to her that your mutual friend is very concerned about her health. Don’t ask her if it is time for her to disclose – she will decide this on her own. Do offer her your continued friendship and discretion if she wants to discuss her options with you.


In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2019 by Amy Dickinson

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