No one wants to watch their parents get older. If your brother or sister really doesn’t want to think about them aging and what that means for your family, they might be trying to protect themselves by refusing to accept the truth about the situation. In other words, they’re in denial.
Aging and denial go hand in hand. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else: It is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that [it] is the final destiny for man.”
Ultimately, denial is a coping mechanism — a way some people choose to deal with stress, anxiety, emotional conflict, painful thoughts, or threatening information.
Have you ever downplayed the possible consequences of an issue or refused to acknowledge a difficult situation? That’s denial — and it can be harmful.
The Dangers of Denial
If you stay in denial, it prevents you from taking action. Denial can prevent someone from getting effective care, it can strain relationships, and it can interfere with someone’s quality of life.
For example, imagine what would happen if your dad was in the end stages of his life, but your mom refused to discuss health care directives and wills with him because she kept insisting that he was going to get better. Or what if your dad was experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath, but he didn’t want to believe those symptoms were a signal that he was having a heart attack, so he delayed getting help.
Another common family conflict example is disagreements about what level of care a parent needs, especially in cases where one sibling lives close to the parent and the other lives far away. For instance, if you live nearby, you see your parent up close more often — the dirty house and shabby lawn and their increasing social withdrawal. Your sibling, on the other hand, sees a smiling face on Skype or hears the same voice over the phone they have for years.
“There is tension that exists between the frontline caregivers and the distant caregivers,” says Barry J. Jacobs, a Clinical Psychologist, Healthcare Consultant, and Author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. “The folks who live far away often make up for in assertiveness what they lack in proximity. They question decisions the people on the front lines are making. Usually, there is disagreement about what the aging parent is going through, what their condition is, and what they need now and in the future.”
When you’re dealing with The Avoider — a sibling who is in denial about parents needing help — it can make everyday life harder. Maybe the Avoider in your family says they just can’t bear to see Mom or Dad in this condition, so they defer responsibility to others on a regular basis.
Fortunately, there are strategies for helping your siblings make progress in dealing with this stressful situation.
Dealing with Denial
Denial can be a helpful response to stressful information. Before you say something you might regret and that could make it even harder for everyone to get on the same page, it helps to acknowledge that caregiving is hard. So have compassion for yourself, and try to have compassion for your siblings.
“It’s often the first time siblings have had to work on anything like this together,” says Crystal Thorpe, a Professional Family Mediator and Co-Founder of Elder Decisions, in Norwood, Massachusetts, and a Co-Author of Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles & Eldercare Crises. “Navigating complex decisions with parents and adult siblings can be challenging — and feel like unfamiliar territory. There are often misunderstandings and miscommunications.”
Get the Doctor Involved
If you and your siblings are having disagreements about how much assistance your parent really needs, it often stems from a lack of information. What’s needed in this case is information and equal access to it.
For instance, if your sister doesn’t want to recognize your mom’s increasing forgetfulness and recent mood changes as signs of dementia, then get the doctor involved. Your loved one’s doctor is an important source of support and information.
Objectively Keep Track of What You’re Doing
If the denial is causing your siblings to dump the caregiving on your shoulders, it’s likely that they don’t understand how quickly caregiving responsibilities can grow from running a few errands each week into a full-time job.
In this case, it helps to call a family meeting. Family meetings offer opportunities for:
- Your parents to share their wants and needs
- You to clarify your parents’ needs and explain all you do
- Your other siblings a chance to learn about the situation, participate in care decisions, and brainstorm how they can pitch in
Be a Listening Ear
Watching a parent decline in mental or physical abilities is emotionally challenging. Your brother or sister might just need a little time to come to terms with it all.
“Parents have always taken care of their kids, and all of a sudden, the kids are responsible for caring for their parents,” says Joanne Housianitis, Director of Outreach for The Arbors at Dracut and The Arbors at Stoneham.
Let them know that you’re open to talking about the subject, even if it makes both of you uncomfortable. When you work with your siblings as a team, it not only makes the job a little easier because you can vent your frustrations to one another and get support, but it can also strengthen your sibling bonds.
For more tips about navigating adult sibling relationships, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.