The informants

A large number of older people seen by psychiatrists are unable to give complete or reliable information about themselves. Frequently, but not invariably, there is a spouse or adult offspring living with the patient. In other cases, however, it is necessary to track down someone less obvious. Neighbours are often helpful at relating recent history, but may know little of past personal or family history. Effort spent in telephoning relatives, even those on the other side of the world, can be invaluable in giving an account of such items as family history or premorbid personality. If an informant is not readily available, for example because it is night-time in Australia, the psychiatrist should not shelve the task of phoning, but only defer it to the next available opportunity.

Where conflicting information is given by a variety of informants it might be necessary to weigh up the particular 'hidden agenda' of each one. For example, the husband of a demented woman may minimize his wife's behaviour disturbance for fear that she would be 'put away'; whereas the daughter may overstate it in order to support a case for her mother's transfer to a nursing home because her father repeatedly phones her for assistance at all hours of the day and night. Each one of the two informants has cogent reasons for weighting the information, but the psychiatrist and his or her team cannot help to resolve the situation until they understand those reasons.

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