How to Handle Siblings in Denial about a Parent’s Declining Health
Nearly all family caregivers with siblings have experienced some version of sibling denial regarding their aging parents. Whether it stems from a subconscious need to ignore the fact that a parent is declining, or they want to pretend that caring for a parent isn’t a big deal so they don’t have to get involved, denial is rampant. This can be incredibly frustrating for primary caregivers to deal with. Examining a sibling’s behavior and your own communication methods can help you devise strategies for convincing them to break through their denial and embrace the reality of your parent’s current and future needs.
Distance and Denial Often Go Hand in Hand: One form of denial takes advantage of distance. In most families, there is typically an adult child who lives nearest to Mom and/or Dad, and then there are siblings who live further out of town or in another state. The role of the primary caregiver usually falls to the local sibling. It’s definitely harder to provide hands-on care from a distance, but there are things these siblings can do from afar, whether it’s bookkeeping for the parents, researching senior living communities, or writing an occasional check for respite care so the primary caregiver can take a break. However, it’s much easier for an out-of-town sibling to turn the other cheek.
Even with updates and warnings, a long-distance sibling doesn’t always get the full picture of how their parent is doing or what caregiving entails on a daily basis. To complicate things further, elders will often perk up when their less involved adult children show up to visit. That’s only natural. This phenomenon is often referred to as “showtiming,” especially in elders who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The parent rallies, excited to see their long-lost child, much to the primary caregiver’s annoyance. But this isn’t just frustrating. Showtiming can also make it appear to occasional visitors that reports of their parent’s decline have been exaggerated.
What the long-distance sibling doesn’t see is the true physical and mental health status of the parent after the visit comes to an end and the excitement wears off. If dementia is a factor, the senior may forget they even had a visitor. That happened once after my brother and his wife visited when our mom was declining. She had looked forward to the visit for weeks. My brother and sister-in-law arrived as planned, spent time with Mom, and then traveled back to their distant home. Afterward, Mom continued to ask me when they were coming. She was still looking forward to their visit and had completely forgotten that it had already happened. It nearly broke my heart to tell her they had been here over the weekend, but I couldn’t lie about something so important to her. We caregivers have to do some pretty dreadful stuff.
When Family Caregivers Are Ignored or Dismissed by Siblings: In talking to fellow caregivers with less involved siblings, I have noticed another common thread. After infrequent visits, these siblings often come away thinking that their primary caregiver brother or sister is overly negative. They think things really aren’t as bad…
Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. “For anyone having to walk the last segments of life with a loved one, read this.” …Delores
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