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Touchy sibling communication may need professional input

Carol Bradley Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: My mom is in the middle stage of Alzheimer's so she needs gentle reminders to accomplish things, as well as compassion when her view of reality is off track. I've learned a lot from the Alzheimer's Association, as well as from reading your work and that of others, about how we should interact with people like Mom. She lives in a nursing home and the staff is excellent with her, so I learn from them, too. When my siblings visit, they boss Mom around and contradict her all the time, yet they won't listen to me when I try to explain how to interact with her. It's depressing for me to watch them do this, and distressing enough for Mom that she deteriorates when they are here. They do love her and say that they'll try to do better, but as soon as they come back it starts all over. How do I get through to them that they are hurting her? RT

Dear RT: It's unfortunate that your siblings aren't catching on faster, but sadly this isn't unusual. The fact that they don't see your mom regularly most likely makes the changes in her somewhat shocking to them. This, in turn, causes them to slip back into the panic mode of trying to make Mom function as she did before the disease. It's an understandable emotional reaction, but they need to be educated.

I'm assuming that you've suggested that they investigate the Alzheimer's Association website at www.alz.org. If they haven't followed through, you could suggest this step again, but they may need to hear the information from a third party.

I would talk with the social worker at the nursing home and explain the situation. Arrange a meeting with this social worker for the next time your siblings come to visit, even if it means separate meetings for each sibling.

With the help of the social worker, decide if it's a good idea for you to attend the meeting or not. You spend a lot of time with your mom, but any of us can learn more, so for the sake of family harmony it may help if you went to the meeting or meetings with your siblings to demonstrate an open mind.

Conversely, it may be a better idea if you aren't there since your siblings may feel more open to asking questions. Either way, this professional is there to help, so listen to her.

If possible, your siblings should also get a chance to talk with the doctor. They may feel more included if this happens, and also be more able to understand the importance of learning appropriate methods of interacting with people who live with Alzheimer's.

Your mom needs to be treated with respect and dignity, and constantly contradicting her is not only counterproductive, it's disrespectful. Your siblings aren't intentionally disrespecting her, I'm sure, but if the social worker and/or doctor can convince them that their behavior is hurting her, they may listen.

Did you know?

  • November is Alzheimer's Awareness month.
  • Every 66 seconds a person in the United States develops Alzheimer's or other dementias.
  • More than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer's, and the number could rise to as high as 16 million by 2050.
  • The cost of caring for people with Alzheimer's and other dementias is $259 billion this year; that number could rise to as high as $1.1 trillion by 2050.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com. 

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