Siblings are the easiest people in the world to resent.
“You always were Mom’s favorite.”
“Dad’s never bought ME a car.”
“You’ve been living off Mom and Dad for years.”
Sadly, the older we get, the deeper resentment can grow.
A parent’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis adds strain to every sibling relationship.
“I’m helping out at Mom & Dad’s every day.”
“I’ve funded their mortgage for years.”
“I manage all their bills and checkbooks.”
My life experience has taught me the value of using Alzheimer’s as the opportunity to improve cooperation and communication among you and your siblings. You see, Alzheimer’s is a make-or-break family experience. Get through Alzheimer’s with a ‘me vs. you guys’ mindset and the divisive wedge of sibling resentment is pounded deeper. (Think decades of likely future estrangement.) Get through Alzheimer’s by prioritizing working together and you will lighten parents’ load plus you’ll enjoy at least 7 kinds of support and peace from your siblings. Take these for example:
1. A sibling is your first responder.
Who does the care partner call when Mom refuses to dress? Or when she burns a pot on the stove or needs a ride to the doctor? Usually a sibling or family member, often the one who lives nearest, serves as the family’s first responder. It’s common for siblings and their partners to assume they are aware of all the times the local family member is dispatched. In truth they only hear about the five alarm fires. Like fire-fighters who hand out carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, first-responder siblings triage hundreds of safety situations that go unmentioned. They assess situations like: who is best to drive to today’s doctor appointment? Who actually ate lunch? And when were the sheets were last changed? Show appreciation and respect to your first responder. The recognition you give them will strengthen your relationship and provide the extra dose of joy they need to bear up under first-responder stress.
To understand how siblings contribute to caregiving while living at a distance, read: Are You a Caregiver? Why it matters for you to know .
2. A sibling is an eyewitness to your past.
“Memory…is the diary we all carry about with us.” Oscar Wilde
What would it be like to see someone change right before your very eyes? With Alzheimer’s, a person can look the same on the outside while inside they are transforming into a completely different person . A coffee-addicts quits cold turkey; an introvert becomes an extrovert; a minister begins to swear freely; a peaceful person becomes violent.
There will be times when you will want to remember your Mom the way she was when she raised you. Surviving Alzheimer’s together with your siblings connects you with others who are experts on your Mom. Even memories of the most imperfect mother, and the way she was, will bring you joy and peace when shared with your siblings.
3. A sibling is a comfort to you in your grief.
“… [Mom’s] personality has changed ever so much, and it is a process of change for me as a daughter. And unlike other illnesses, that change means loss - a lot of the time - and loss means grief. So, if I’m looking at it in the negative way, it’s a lot of grief over and over and over again, which is the hard part of this.” Sarah Mitchell, daughter of Wendy Mitchell, NY Times Best Selling Author of “Someone I Used to Know” on BBC Sounds podcast, April 2, 2019
Alzheimer’s is a subtraction disease. It takes small parts of our loved-one away bit by bit. As Mom’s abilities, hobbies and preferences diminish Mom eventually gets better at accepting the change. We on the other hand seem to get worse. Maybe it’s because we are the ones who need to adapt to her losses. We long for the good old days when Mom weeded the flower garden with Old-Testament vengeance and ruled the house with a wooden spoon. We miss our Mom. We grieve the loss of the house-blend that made Mom so uniquely Mom. Because we are human, we grieve. Grief over Mom’s losses is normal. Grief will continue for as long as Mom lives with Alzheimer’s (and likely beyond). Sharing your grief with siblings can offer peace and solace for all of you.
4. A sibling can give you a firm reality check.
“Doctor, my eyes/ Tell me what you see. / I hear their cries. Just say if it’s too late for me.” – Jackson Browne
During Alzheimer’s your loved one is guaranteed to say or do things you find unbelievable. Next thing you know their care-partner will join in doing it too. What’s on earth is going on?
Changes in the Alzheimer’s brain are changing their reality. The good news is that often their ‘unusual’ behavior can be a sign that they are appropriately adapting to their new realities.
Now take a look at yourself in the mirror. How are you adapting to these changes? Somehow by standing still, you’re now the one out of step.
A great way to find peace in these moments is to talk them over with a sibling. In this case your sibling (even one on the opposite end of the political spectrum) may be the only one who can give you the reality check you really need. They can confirm that yes, in fact, this is a new behavior (rather than something you missed seeing all these years). And reassure you that yes you can (and must) pay closer attention to your parents than you have been.
5. A sibling can help you know when to stop fixing and start accepting.
“If there's a single lesson that life teaches us, it's that wishing doesn't make it so.” ― Lev Grossman.
After your reality check, a natural response is to try to fix everything. To de-clutter the house. To organize the medications, to move Mom and Dad somewhere safer, and on, and on. These can be sound impulses, especially when put in place in concert with your siblings.
There will come a day when all the busyness and change become the problem. Your care partner is too frazzled to put your plans into action. Your loved one is less able than you realize. Alzheimer’s is at least 3 steps ahead of you.
This is when a sibling can give you the wake up call you need. A sibling can help you realize that the only positive way forward is to work on your own acceptance. To accept that your fixes are agitating and frightening for your loved one. That your fixes are exhausting for your carer. This is the time when you need to accept that entering your loved ones’ new world is the perfect gift to give them.
6. A sibling relationship creates opportunities to be merciful.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
When your sibling deserves anger, punishment, or retribution and you choose not to give them what they deserve, you are exercising mercy. Mercy is a gift to you both. Mercy is a gift you will feel great giving, because it will free you from your resentment. And it’s a gift that feels great to receive because it is an undeserved surprise and also reminds us to return the gift of mercy.
7. A sibling is a travel companion on the long Alzheimer’s road.
“When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
- Robert Fulghum
True, even when your sister has cooties.
Siblings can be compassionate support resources for parents – (and for each other) during Alzheimer’s.
Sustaining each other brings you, your siblings and your care partner safely over the Alzheimer’s finish line. The healthier, stronger connections gained are a gift that helps us better appreciate the imperfect people we love.
Every effort you make to get you and your siblings on the same page during a loved one’s Alzheimer’s is valuable. Many siblings navigate the relationship and well-being changes related to Alzheimer’s on their own. Other siblings find it helpful to have a neutral third-party facilitate discussion and learning. They find a third-party gets them on the same page at a faster rate with stronger, lasting results.
The Perfect Thing now offers a solution for these siblings. Siblings Surviving Alzheimer’s brings siblings together to learn about Alzheimer’s and its impact on families. Sessions provide answers to your hows and whys, include facilitated discussions to strengthen sibling respect, collaboration and connection. This is your opportunity to work directly with Barbara Ivey, an expert who has been in your shoes.
Sessions are available on evenings and weekends. Online meetings make it possible for siblings who live in different towns or time zones to participate easily. Perfect for the closest of families or families who are physically or emotionally distant. For more details, and to book your first appointment, see Siblings Surviving Alzheimer’s.