As children grow up and leave the nest, they often spread out to different cities and even states. Career opportunities, a desire to live in a different environment, or the location of spouse’s family are just some of the reasons for moving away from their home town. Sometimes, they just need a little breathing room from their siblings or an overbearing parent. Family relations don’t ease with distance but may possibly soften over time. That is until, family members are confronted with a difficult situation.
Let’s say for example Joe, the oldest son, moved to the East Coast shortly after graduating from college. He made a point to visit twice a year, until the demands of his own family and job prevented him from making regular trips back to California. The youngest daughter Julia became a nurse and remained close to her parents in their home town. She and Joe had opposite temperaments and often did not get along. Julia is a natural caregiver and realizes how much she needs to compensate for her mom’s lapses in memory and ability to complete complex tasks. This has been taking its toll on her energy and is affecting her relationship with her own husband and kids. When Joe comes to visit, Mom is on her best behavior. He doesn’t understand why Julia is so concerned about their mom’s decline. He resists any notion that mom has slipped. Julia accuses him of being in denial. She becomes angry with Joe because he doesn’t see the sacrifices Julia is making for their mom.
Often times, those who are closest to the person experiencing memory loss are more likely to accurately assess the situation. Family members who are more remote, either physically and/or emotionally don’t seem to accept that there is a problem.
Those in the earlier stages of memory loss often practice a phenomenon I like to call “performing.” They realize they are expected to respond in a certain way while in a familiar situation. In the example above, Mom seems perfectly fine because she is performing. Conversations seem to flow easily because she is in complete agreement with Joe’s comments. She may not be able to articulate that it is hot outside, so she replies “Isn’t that the case.” when Joe remarks on the summertime. She will cover up the fact that she shoes are on the wrong feet because they are so comfortable that she didn’t even notice. She will ask Joe to set the table because he is so good at it, rather than reveal she can’t remember which side to place the fork.
The best way to get a remote sibling to see the real behavior of their parent is to identify the times when, in Joe’s case, mom is performing. He could make a statement that is clearly nonsensical and listen to mom agree. By gently challenging mom to do something spontaneously, Joe could observe that lost look in her eyes, and perhaps frozen body language. When mom doesn’t know that he is watching, she is likely to reveal herself the way Julia sees her.
When family members can work together to accurately assess memory loss in a parent, they are in the best position to seek the appropriate level of care. Denying or delaying medical treatment for the parent and support for the caregiver is an injustice to the entire family.