Siblings in Denial About a Parent's Declining Health

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Nearly all family caregivers who have siblings have experienced some version of sibling denial in regard to their parents. Whether the denial is the subconscious need to ignore that fact that a parent is declining, or they want to pretend that caring for a declining parent isn't all that big a deal so they don't have to get involved, denial is rampant.

One form of denial takes advantage of distance. There is a caregiver in town and there are siblings at a distance. It's definitely harder for the long-distance caregivers to give hands-on care, but there are things they can do, whether it's bookkeeping for the parents or writing an occasional check to hire respite care so the hands-on caregiver can hire help. However, when one is at a distance, it's easier to hide one's head in the sand.

Also, even with updates and warnings, a distance sibling doesn't always get the full picture. Added to that is the disturbing reality that often an elder will perk up when the long-distance adult child shows up for a visit, making the caregiver look like he or she is exaggerating the illness of the parent. That's only natural. The parent is thrilled to see the long-lost child. Everyone is excited and the adrenaline is pumping.

What the distance sibling doesn't see is the intense decline of the parent once the visit is over. The elder sinks back into reality. Often, they've forgotten the visitor even came. That happened after my brother and his wife visited us when our mom was getting very ill. She had looked forward to the visit for weeks. My brother and his wife came for the planned time, and then went back to their distant home. Afterward, Mom continued to ask me when they were coming. She was still looking forward to their visit. She had completely forgotten the real event. It nearly broke my heart to tell her they had been here over the weekend, but I couldn't lie about that. Dreadful stuff we caregivers have to do.

Get Siblings Help Caring for Elderly Parents

What people tell me is that often when the distance sibling leaves the parent to go back home, the mindset of the sibling is that the caregiver is overly negative. Things really aren't so bad.

I'm not picking on distance caregivers, by the way. A good friend of mine traveled a great deal to cope with her mother's illness and death, because the adult child in town "couldn't deal with it," and things really weren't "that bad." However, distance is often a realistic factor.

The other type of sibling denial is where the sibling turns her or his back and ignores the daily grind that life has become for the one adult child who is doing all the errand running, doctor appointments and emergency handling. The absent sibling acknowledges the parent is ill, but ignores the fact that caregiving takes a huge toll on the caregiver. The distance sibling doesn't want to investigate ways to help, since it's easier to ignore the stress and exhaustion of their hard-working hands-on sibling. Sometimes they simply don't know how to help.

How do we wake up these experts in denial? First, we look at ourselves. Yep. We all have to do that. Have we asked for help directly and with specific requests? I know. We shouldn't have to do that. The siblings should want to pitch in. However, some people just aren't good at figuring out how they can help, and since the caregiver doesn't complain or ask for help, they just go their merry way and don't bother finding out what they can do. So first and foremost, caregivers need to ask for help in general, but also be specific if necessary. Say, "I don't have time to handle the monthly bank statements. Could you take that on? And the taxes, too? That would take a load off of me."

Siblings Who Refuse To Help Care for Aging Parents

If they ignore you? That happens all the time. You tried. Now you try again, perhaps with a letter or e-mail stating that if they can't help they can write a check so you can hire help. If you still get nowhere, then you can go further, depending on what you want to risk. You can hire a family mediator to figure out how to cope with siblings dumping the caregiving on your shoulders. You can get counseling for the same reasons. Or you can just accept the situation and move on.

If the denial is about say, mom's increasing dementia symptoms, then you may need to get a doctor involved. Get Mom's medical records and say bluntly, "This is the report from Mom's doctor. She is showing signs of mid-stage Alzheimer's and there are drugs that can help. You need to talk to the doctor since you keep fighting me on getting her on medication. She does need it."

I say it often, but I can't overstate this: A third party is your best resort if siblings won't listen to reason. So often, family dynamics are the stumbling block. When a professional, whether it's a doctor, a social worker or a mediator comes into the picture, the sibling in denial may listen. They know it's not just "little sister" being whiny. Mom is, indeed, declining. She needs care. Little sister needs help.

The third party – a faith community leader, old family friend or doctor – can often make great headway with the sibling because of that very fact that this person is not part of the family. Give it a shot. Maybe your siblings will pull their heads out of the sand long enough to "get it."

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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42 Comments

We hear how important it is to take care of ourselves so we can be at our best to take care of our loved ones. We hear how we are to ask others for help, even when that is difficult to do. We take a chance and ask siblings to please become more involved in our mother's care. Just visit more often, spend more than an hour with her, play a game with her, take her out for a ride in the car; please offer us some time so we can have a break. Then we have to hear the all too-familiar response: Don't expect us to do any more than we are already doing. (Which is an occasional visit once or twice a month.) It hurts to hear that. We have to accept so many changes and alter our lives to be the caregivers we feel called to be, but to have to accept that our siblings are selfish and uncompassionate is a bit much to bear. Just knowing that there are so many of us in the same situation, doing our best, sometimes not doing our best but trying; what a blessing to have a site like this where we can share and vent without fear of judgment. Hugs to all caregivers.
Any disfunction that was in the relationships in your family all along, are not going to miraculously get better with age.
Caring for the elderly is a task like mowing the lawn, not a treat like going to the Fair.
The economy all over the world is terrible and lots of people are keeping a poker face about how devastated they are monetarily.

Taking all that into consideration-- I think the best action is to be clear as possible about what "you want to do or can do" for your family member.
I tell my siblings a year ahead the month in summer I will take off and the cost of hiring a caregiver to come in. I offer them the cost of the caregiver to take mom home with them or to move in here and care for her. I do not wait for an answer to make my plans.
Same option with going to the doctors appointments etc. I call them and and give them a chance to step-up when I can not. But I do not stall waiting for their answer. I hire someone to help me.
As they see Mom's nest egg dwindle under my decisions I let them know that I will tolerate no belly aching unless I see them suit-up and show-up to carry some of the load. I remind myself that any $1 I save is only 33 cents for my kids. The kids would rather have the benefit of the $1 of services that brings me back to them than to wait for the 33 cents far down the road.

You got to lay down to be treated like a door mat.

Stand up and be CLEAR. Cut yourself the deal you are interested in fufilling.

You ask us if it would be better for her to move closer. Only you can know.
I would ask, is there an appropriate facility close to your home and is it affordable and full of the kinds of people your mom has enjoyed her whole life? Every care home has it's own culture and feel. Explore your options before you start making changes that are difficult to rewind. My life is best when everything is within 5 miles of my house and work. In our multicultural community my dad, the steak and potatoes guy, was served shoyu vegetables and rice for a year. The old ladies in the lounge chairs next to him gossiped in Croatian. The TV was on a Spanish channel. Gratefully, he was pretty GAGA by then and he did not really notice.

I completely agree with the post that said pack your bag and hit the door the moment they show. It is your chance to get a little respite. Make a good plan. I got my eye on a weekend camping in Desert Palms in the Fall.
I am tired of you all saying it is a parent who has dementia. In my case it is a brother. We are both in our 70's, and I have him in a nursing home. Our three sisters live out of state and don't visit very often. Now the court is going to appoint an outside guardian, because the sisters would not support me in that role. I am hoping that will mean less stress for me and that the guardian won't move him far away. I don't own a car and visit him via public transit.