What to do when your siblings disagree?

“My brother is visiting and he thinks Mom is just fine! And to make matters worse Mom seems to fool him that she is just fine! What do I do?”  Peggy, North Carolina

This is a common frustration shared by so many family caregivers. When the siblings or adult children who are at a distance don’t quite see the situation as it really is and the primary caregiver struggles to convince them that their loved one needs more care.

And to make matters worse usually our loved one seem to be able to “fake it” and appear to do better whenever they call or visit. Only further convincing them that you are just over reacting!

Take Charge

To begin with if you are your mother’s primary caregiver be sure that you have the power and authority to make both medical and financial decisions for her now. You do not want your brother’s reluctance to “see what really is” to interfere with your ability to provide the care your mother “actually needs”. It will continue to be a frustration until he is “on board” and he second-guesses some of your care decisions. But be sure you can do what needs to be done now and then explain it to him later.

Frustration Management

Understanding some of the dynamics of the situation may help you to better manage your frustration and provide some solutions to try. It first begins by “seeing” what your brother is actually seeing. Second, understand that he may be “seeing” what he wants or needs to see. Reality and denial are both playing a part in the situation with your brother. Let me explain.

Reality – She’s not faking

It is amazing to watch someone we love suddenly perk up and become more “able” when distant family or friends come to visit. How can your Mother “fake” being better than she really is most of the time? Well, the truth is your Mother is not just putting on a good show, she really is doing better when your brother comes to visit. And that is because, seeing someone she loves and doesn’t usually see, triggers memories and strong emotional responses that “fires up” parts of the brain that have previously been on autopilot. Now this not a miraculous recovery as it appears but it is a genuine moment of clarity and higher functioning. It is just the brain functioning at a heightened level of awareness as it processes new information and sensory input.

Also consider that your Mother may be working very hard to protect her son from the harsh reality of her disability. She may think he is not emotionally strong enough to handle seeing her infirmed so she is working very hard to be more alert and focused. Something she does not need to do around you.

But regardless of the reasons why, it is not be sustainable. I imagine that soon after your brother leaves your mother is exhausted and seems to get worse as she recovers from the burst of emotional, psychological and physical energy. If your brother stayed long enough he would eventually see her as she usually is, as you see her. But just know that he may only “see” this version of your Mother – the one who “is just fine”.

Also be aware that because you are so close to the situation that you might be “seeing” what is coming and not what is actually happening today. Realize your brother might be correct that Mom is fine – because today she is fine. Learn to separate “what is” now with what you know and may be “seeing” as coming next.

What to do

Acknowledge to your brother and yourself that Mom does better when he visits. When you can see what he sees, then you can help him see it as you do. Gently point out things she routinely struggles with but seems to do easily while he is around. Let him know what happens after he leaves. Also get his buy-in on what to do next. You may not agree on the timing of the next step but at least agree on what that step is. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” is not the best caregiving plan. Be patient but persistent so you can both be prepared for the next part of the journey. Know what and how you will cross that bridge when you come to it (that is not the time to start building the bridge.)

Denial – Late getting on board

Secondly, remember you are further along in your grieving process than your brother is at the moment. Because you are with your mother all of the time you have been forced to accept her decline and increased disability. If you think back to early in your caregiving journey you probably didn’t “see” some of the initial signs of your Mother’s decline or disability. You thought she was “just fine” too – at the time.

Because your brother is at a distance and only visits for short periods of time he is much further behind in the process of acceptance. Add to that your Mother’s ability to do better in his presence and you can see how he’s just not there yet. As he tries to avoid feeling the sadness and fear of losing his mother it keeps him from accepting the reality of the situation. Denial is a very necessary and strong coping mechanism that eventually fades as reality sets in. This is a slow process but a necessary one for your brother.

What to do

Be compassionate and give him time to come to accept the situation. But also be consistent and persistent in communicating updates of your Mother’s decline and increasing needs. Eventually reality will set in and hopefully things will get a little easier for you both.

I hope you found this helpful.

If you have a question you would like me to answer just email me at Pat@Pat Thorne.com or click the “comments” word above. If I don’t have the answer I will connect you to someone who can help.

So until next time – take care of yourself and know that there is

…help for the journey



1 thought on “What to do when your siblings disagree?”

  1. That was a really good post. Coming from the other side of caregiving , I agree . And it’s a lot of help for the sick person to know that everyone is on the same page on their condition.
    I do the same thing her mother does: when we have company I “perk up” and seem better… But once they leave I’m down for the count for a loonnggg time.
    Great post!


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