By: Tess Worrell
“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I have to leave for home next week, and we’ve decided NOTHING!” Sally cringed as she realized how loud she had become. Forcing calm into her voice, she offers, “My mom needs care. She needs it now. How do I get my sister and myself on the same page before my flight leaves next Friday?”
Part of the “sandwich generation,” Sally recognized that she was crumbling under the weight of trying to care for her dementia-impacted mother in one city and her own husband and three teens in another. Complicating the issue were the ongoing arguments with her sister over the best care for their mother. Never close, they really hadn’t communicated in years outside Christmas cards and an occasional overlap visit at Mom’s house. Now, they faced combining very different perspectives and priorities to decide how to move forward.
Sally noted that it seemed every conversation began discussing whether a facility would work or which medicine to try but quickly turned to old arguments and past hurts. “I don’t want to talk about those. I just want to find the best answers for Mom. How do we do that?” Sally asked. Yet, as she kept talking, she wondered aloud whether there a way to heal their wounds and create some sort of relationship that would survive their mother’s inevitable passing. “After Mom goes, my sister is all I have left of our family,” murmured Sally. “I don’t want this to be the end.”
Making decisions for parents’ care in their final years forces adult children to contemplate a range of tough issues: life without parents (which can be toughest if the relationship has been distant), the financial strain of various options, complicated medical paperwork, and trying to discern what a parent would want if they could express their preferences.
Complicating matters further can be the disagreements between siblings on how to proceed. Parental care becomes a lightning rod for opening old wounds and deep rivalries which then blocks productive discussion. How can siblings, who may have been close or who may have never been able to work together, find common ground on the essential questions they face?
- It helps to step back and let each person take a turn describing what they want their mother’s last days to be like. Move beyond bottom line statements such as, “I want her to be able to stay in her home” to why that goal is important. “I want her to be surrounded by the familiar, to be able to follow her routines, to avoid more change when she’s so fragile.”
- Once each sibling has painted his or her picture of what they seek for mom, find the commonalities. This allows siblings to focus on what they share rather than what divides. While other siblings may not agree that Mom should stay home, they do see the benefit to maintaining as much familiarity as possible, a point of connection. Individual points of connection then become building blocks for more points of connection and a foundation for agreement. The focus becomes Mom and how best to care for her.
- When old rivalries rear their ugly head with statements such as, “Well, you’ve been gone for the last 20 years, so I think I know best what Mom would want,” a good counter can be, “I know you have been near her, and I want to say ‘thank you’ for all you’ve done. I also think it’s important that we both agree to the best options in case you can’t be there at some point. I really just want the best for Mom.” Statements such as these take the high ground and return to the real focus, Mom’s care.
- Be respectful of the differences. Rather than seeing a sister’s focus on the bottom line costs of care as heartless or a way to control the process, view it as a necessary consideration. When differences can be seen as a way to create a more well-rounded solution, rather than as rival viewpoints, siblings combine forces to find the best of the best for their parent.
- The points of connection also form a framework for assessing options. Perhaps, Mom can’t remain in her home, but she can go to the facility set in the woods much like her cabin or to the facility where she routinely visited an aunt, meeting the goal of maintaining some sense of the familiar.
- Finally, remember the enemy is the disease robbing each child of their mother, not the other siblings. No matter the history, someone precious is slipping away and time is short. When siblings can see each other as teammates united to create the best situation for Mom rather than as rivals, tension eases and agreement comes.
Aging parents present a myriad of issues for children to resolve. Each has legal, social, and personal implications for those deciding. Bottom line, it’s a tough time. Not the time to also be fighting each other. As siblings develop a common vision for the life they want for their parents, they lay a foundation for relating well to each other….. Perhaps the greatest gift as they move into a future when they may need each other most.