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 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 as they’ve been made out to be, whether the parent is showtiming or not. This can happen with local siblings who seldom visit as well.
(I’m not picking on long-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 insisted things really weren’t urgent. However, distance is often a contributing factor in strained sibling relationships.)
This type of sibling denial happens when one sibling ignores how caregiving has transformed their brother or sister’s life. The absent sibling acknowledges their parent is ill but refuses to recognize the fact that running errands, shuttling Mom and/or Dad to countless doctor’s appointments, and handling emergencies have taken a huge toll on their sibling.
They don’t offer assistance or want to investigate ways to provide help because it’s easier to just ignore the stress that their sibling is under. Sometimes this stems from ignorance—they simply don’t know how to help or don’t fully appreciate the overwhelming responsibilities and stress that caregivers face. If they do come to realize the gravity of the situation after their initial absence, they still may not take the plunge out of embarrassment over their previous lack of involvement.
How to Get Siblings to Help Care for Aging Parents
So, how do we give these experts in denial a reality check? First, we must take a good, hard look at ourselves and consider two tough questions:
- Have you asked for help directly?
- Have you made specific requests of them?
I know. We shouldn’t have to do either of these things. Our siblings are family and by default they should want to pitch in. However, some people just aren’t skilled at understanding other people’s perspectives, sensing they need help or putting energy into devising ways to lend a hand. Yes, some individuals are fundamentally selfish and apathetic about others’ struggles, but many tend to be kind-hearted despite their obliviousness or self-absorption. Everyone has countless things vying for their time and attention, whether it’s work, family, bills, health problems or hobbies.
Since many caregivers don’t complain or ask for what they need most, their siblings just carry on with their lives apart from all the commotion. They may believe that their stressed primary caregiver siblings have everything fully under control and therefore there is nothing they can contribute. So, above all, caregivers need to learn to be comfortable not only asking for help in general, but also putting their requests in very specific terms. For example, “I don’t have time to handle Mom’s monthly bank statements. Could you please take over this task as well as preparing her taxes? That would really reduce the amount of caregiver stress I’m feeling.”
Make a list of tasks that you could use help with. Each time you see or speak with your sibling (or if they ask YOU if they can help with anything), you’ll always have an item on your list that you can delegate in that moment.
Siblings Who Refuse To Participate in Caregiving
If your siblings ignore you or shrug off your updates or requests for help, don’t be discouraged. Members of the Caregiver Forum have shared countless experiences with brothers and sisters who won’t hear them out. Unfortunately, this happens all the time. The important thing is that you tried to keep them in the loop and get them involved. The only thing left to do is try again.
Perhaps try writing a letter or an e-mail stating that if they can’t or won’t personally provide help, you would greatly appreciate financial support so you can hire help for your parent. If this approach gets you nowhere, there are other options, depending on what you want to risk. You can hire a family mediator to help resolve any lingering issues between you and your siblings and create a more balanced, collaborative approach to elder care. Counseling can help immensely as well, regardless of whether a sibling is willing to participate. Speaking with a mental health professional can give you the tools to cope with a sibling’s lack of interest and involvement.
If the denial is about a parent’s health, then you may need to get a doctor involved. For example, Dad’s dementia symptoms are worsening. If your sibling can’t or won’t come to an appointment with you both, then get a copy of Dad’s medical records and send them along with a blunt note: “This is the report from Dad’s doctor. It includes his diagnosis, care plan recommendations, current symptoms and what we may be able to expect as his condition progresses. I would really appreciate your help and input navigating next steps, including medication options, finding respite care, comparing personal alert devices and possibly considering Dad’s eventual placement in memory care.”
I say it often, but I can’t overstate this: A third party is your best resort if siblings won’t listen to reason and you truly want them to be involved. So often family dynamics are the main obstacle. When a professional, whether it’s a doctor, an attorney, a financial advisor, a social worker or a mediator, comes into the picture, the sibling in denial may finally begin to listen. They may realize that the situation is much more serious than just their brother or sister being whiny or needy. Their parent needs help and, by extension, that means their sibling needs help as well.
A trustworthy third party can be a professional, a faith leader, another family member or an old family friend. This objective outsider can make great headway with the stubborn sibling because they are 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.”
The final option is to just accept the situation and move on. The truth is that some siblings simply refuse to accept reality and get involved no matter what you do. Even worse is when their only involvement amounts to criticizing or fighting your care decisions without fully understanding the situation. Sometimes an absent sibling is better than an antagonistic one.