2017-07-13 / Healthy Living

When care of elderly parent falls to one sibling, it’s time to talk

The phone call came in the middle of the night.

“Sharon, I don’t feel right!”

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“The room is spinning and my heart is throbbing.” Sharon’s mother is well into her 80s, with declining health, so Sharon had no way of knowing how serious this was. And, unfortunately, her mother lives 40 minutes away.

“Mom, you’d better call 911. I’ll get dressed and meet you at the hospital.”

Sharon’s husband was out of town on business. Her brother, Jeff, lives in Boston; her sister Nancy lives in L.A. So, once again, it would be up to Sharon to run when there’s an emergency. As she sped down the turnpike, the fear took over. She adored her mother and refused to entertain the worst-case scenario.

Sharon spent the night in the emergency room. First thing in the morning, she called her office to cancel the day’s meetings. She next called Jeff and then Nancy to report that their mother had been admitted to the hospital for observation.

Although they asked all the right questions and seemed appropriately concerned, Sharon found herself getting more and more irritated. She muttered to herself: “How convenient! You get to call for an update. I have to find a way to take care of Mom AND manage to keep my job!” Sharon didn’t think of herself as a particularly negative or bitter person. Why was she feeling so resentful?

It was only when the situation stabilized and her mother was back home that Sharon was able to sort out her feelings. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her mother, but it galled her that her siblings seemed to expect that she would drop everything whenever a problem came up.

What she found most distressing was not being able to predict when the calls would come.

A planner by nature, Sharon would be thrown off-kilter when she had to shift gears to handle her mother’s emergencies. It bothered her that her siblings either had no idea (or didn’t choose to consider) that she found it all overwhelming.

What we often discover in extended-family emergencies is that one person usually ends up shouldering the lion’s share of the demands. Even if the entire family lives in close proximity, we often find that one usually steps up to the plate to assume responsibilities, while another may find “convenient” reasons to step aside.

There are many South Floridians who are placed in this “unelected” position of becoming the family members who live the closest to aged relatives and are therefore the ones inevitably called upon to handle all the problems. Whether they have agreed to shoulder this responsibility or not, they are often faced with the expectation by others that they will be the ones on call.

To be fair, many out-of-state relatives are well intended, and sincerely wish to offer support. Sometimes, though, their efforts are inadequate or misunderstood. They may truly not know what to say or do to be of help.

During emergencies, charged emotions and exhaustion may wreak havoc on civilized discussions. Caregivers may not always put into words how overwhelmed they are nor will they know how to specifically spell out what they need. They may not have the strength to be gracious when they receive a well-intended phone call from a relative because the conversation feels like one more chore on the to-do list.

Obviously, clear communication, directness and consideration should make a big difference. However, lifelong hurts, jealousies and resentments among relatives may come storming back with a vengeance if the parties do not pay close attention and take steps to head off hard feelings. Acknowledging each other’s efforts is usually greatly appreciated.

In Sharon’s case, she discovered that her siblings would actually agree to assume some of the responsibilities; but not until she was quite specific and spelled out what she needed them to do.

Nancy in L.A. could make doctor appointments for their mother by phone, just as easily as Sharon could in Florida. Jeff was put in charge of arranging for the medical supply deliveries and scheduling the aides.

At first she was resentful that they hadn’t figured out on their own that there were indeed ways they could help long distance. It wasn’t that Sharon wanted to undermine or create conflict with her siblings. It was, in fact, important to her that she maintain close ties. However, their willingness to take this on once she asked ultimately made a huge difference. She was especially gratified when they took the time to thank her for all of her efforts.

Adult children play a crucial role in helping aging parents. The emotional and physical demands are such that it takes a concerted effort on everyone’s part to work collaboratively and supportively to provide the necessary care. ¦

— Linda Lipshutz, LCSW, ACSW, is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. She practices in Palm Beach Gardens.

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