Siblings in Denial

Siblings in Denial About a Parent’s Declining Health and Care Needs

By Carol Bradley Bursack

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 the 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.

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