My sister claims I don't help our parents enough, and she's turning them against me.

Last updated: June 01, 2010

I live 1,200 miles from my parents, who both have dementia and other ailments, and my sister is their full-time caregiver. I have to work -- I'm an oncology nurse and if I lose my job, I won't have any income or retirement -- but I feel guilty all the time about my family's situation.

My sister is always making little digs -- that I should visit more often, that Mom and Dad have two children, and that she never gets a break. I call almost every day, pitch in financially, and visit every chance I can -- but it's never enough. Now my parents have started saying things like, "You don't seem to care about us anymore," and that hurts.

How do I establish that I really do care and I appreciate all my sister does, but the situation isn't something I can change?

Many families think of one person as the hero and, which tends to make another "the villain." It's also common for long-distance family members to get a bad rap. Neither characterization is fair, and you have every right to stand up for yourself. But also challenge yourself to look at it from your sister's perspective: Put yourself in her overworked caregiving shoes.

It sounds as if you really do care about your parents and are making a genuine effort to pitch in. Realize, though, that your sister has more to do than ten people could decently manage. Caring for two parents with dementia is over-the-top stressful.

There will come a time when your sister, even with your assistance, cannot meet their needs. She may be aware that this day is coming and is reacting to the fact that she's no longer enough. She's angry and hurt -- at the disease, at the inevitability of death, and perhaps at what her life is like right now. She's taking it out on you in part because you're a safe target. She probably secretly hopes you'll love her anyway.

Try not to take it personally (even though it feels quite personal). Consider her complaining a cry for help.

Even though you can't physically be there for your parents every day, you can on some level be there for your sister every day. Every caregiver needs a caregiver. Along with calling your parents, call her and ask her how she's doing. Send her funny cards and include a gift card. Send her a spa basket or an audio book. Shower her with thoughtfulness. And most important, thank her profusely for all she does.

Try to ignore her snarky comments. Let her vent, and while she's ranting, listen to what's really bugging her. Is there a certain caregiving chore she detests, such as bathing your parents? Maybe you could you hire a care aide for a few hours a week to do that one duty.

Don't be surprised if she balks at your additional efforts. She may want to gripe more than anything. She may shoot down all of your suggestions. Many of us caregivers are control freaks extraordinaire. Resistance tends to happen when you know that if the meds aren't dispensed at the right time the whole day will be thrown off-kilter, or that if you don't sit with them they won't eat. It becomes tough to let go and trust others.

Your parents may be mimicking what they've heard from your sister, especially given that they have dementia. Call often, and ignore the negativity. Most parents just want to know their kids love them. Talk about your upcoming visit or a movie you saw, or ask your dad's advice about a car or leaky faucet. Everyone needs to feel needed.

Continue to visit as often as you can. Day-to-day caregiving is grueling, and your sister needs breaks. At some point, you and she will need to talk about other options such as a care facility or full-time care assistance. Maybe this is one way you can help -- researching affordable options and whether your parents qualify for Medicaid.

In the meantime, have you ever considered moving closer? I'm not saying you should do this -- but at least consider it.

What I hope you won't do is beat yourself up. That helps no one. Don't blame your sister, either. But if she refuses all help, then know you've done all you can and she's making her own choice.

This is the time in life when the expression "when the rubber hits the road" takes on new meaning. As our families need us more and more, we have to do all we can to be the child and sibling we're proud to be. At the same time, you have to determine your own standards. Refuse to give in to guilt and shame.

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4 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

almost 3 years ago


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over 4 years ago

I know exactly how your sister feels. She IS crying out for help and what the advisor says is right on target. But you could try to do something like ask her if she can get home health to come in and give her a break. You may be able to take a week off or something to come give her a break. My sisters are 4 hours away and one is 1 hour away. I am 2 1/2 hours away but being a disabled nurse they let it all fall on me because I wasn't doing any other kind of paying work. I did have a home health care business I gave up to take care of mom. My father asked if I would move in and he would leave me their house when they were gone. I said not unless it's okay with every one of my siblings. We both talked to all of them and they were all for it. Now mom is gone and dad is senile, they've taken away my executor of their will, I've had for 25 years without anyone caring, because my father got very mean and started telling odd totally outragious lies about me. They knew it couldn't be true but used him to get what they wanted and are now talking about using their house as a time share when he is gone. Mom has passed and they spent the last two years of her life talking her into believing I was some horrible monster only after their stuff. It all started with the way your sister is acting. So do somethinig now before it gets too late..Her health is at stake. I almost killed myself letting myself go trying to help my parents. I felt they needed me more than I needed help. Being an RN doesn't matter when it's your parents and siblings. You can't see the forest for the trees. I believe your sister needs help right now, and don't take it personally she loves you and probably needs you desparately just doesn't know what to do. Between two parents there is no time to read up on their diseases or figure out what to do, it is way too demanding. she is getting burned out and needs help now. I dont mean to make you out to be a villian either you don't seem anythihng like my sisters. But please, try to do whatever you can to help her. And never ever belittle the work she is doing, it is the hardest thing on earth to take care of aging parents. They go through so many stages, will treat you like a child, will abuse you, lose things and accuse you of stealing them. My father did this and my sisters knew I would never do these things but they used it to make my parents hate me and get more inheritance for themselves. It's ugly and I've heard so many similiar stories. Don't let it happen to her I beg of you. Sincerely and seriously only trying to help you both, Cathy Wilson

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over 4 years ago

I wish I had siblings like you! My parents have lived with me for the past 5 years, in an "in-law apartment" we did for them in our walk-out basement. My mother has aggressive cancer, and my father has dementia (probably from pin strokes). My two brothers live within 20 - 60 minutes of our home, but only my older brother helps on a regular basis (with transportation). I also have 3 children, ages 8 - 15, and work full-time (primarily from home, but with some regular out-of-state travel). I have tried every way I know to reach out to my brothers and let them know that I sometimes feel overwhelmed and need their help. Unfortunately, they (or their wives) have reacted defensively, and sometimes extremely hurtful ... to the point where I decided last year it was better to just do it on my own than ask for help. I realize hindsight is 20/20, and my several requests for help with their transportation could have been phrased less like scheduling orders(esp. after my older brother had his father-in-law dr. order my dad not to drive). But my husband and I were feeling overwhelmed with my parents' needs. We still are, but are coming to accept that this stressful time may be limited in duration ... and we'd rather try to enjoy my parents company than continue asking for help and being yelled at - via e-mail or otherwise. If you are helping financially -- that is FABULOUS!! My brothers won't do that at all. My older one even told me he has no intention of "easing my burden," which I later learned goes back to childhood resentments. (I was adopted when he was 7, and my mom finally told me a few years ago that he has always resented me.) My younger brother's wife gets pissed off if he or I even suggests he might help in any way. That's a whole 'nother level of resentment, from her (a marriage/family counselor - can you believe it?) against my mother. Nice. I don't fault my brother for trying to keep the peace in his family. But what I'm saying is this: if you are helping all you can financially, and are trying to "be there" emotionally and actually ASKING how it's going and how everyone's feeling (and then LISTENING and responding accordingly), then you are a wonderful, caring, FABULOUS sibling -- and I wish you were mine! Keep it up. Use the suggestions above from the advisor. I can tell you that if one of my brothers sent me a gift basket, gift card, or even a simple, "How are ya?" paper card, I would melt into grateful tears in two seconds. Speaking as a primary caregiver, all we really want is for you to show you care and that you are trying to understand what we are doing and why ... and that you appreciate it. A simple hand-written note would speak volumes, trust me. And let us vent. We need to talk to someone. If I try to talk to my brothers and vent, they view it as me trying to "guilt" them into doing something. I'm not. When I start talking about what's going on, I just want to vent to someone who KNOWS our parents. I only want them to commiserate, perhaps pray for me, and tell me it will be ok. I don't need them to "solve" anything -- because it can't be "fixed." I just need someone to listen sometimes. Speaking of venting, this reply has gone on longer than intended. My prayers are with you and your family. Keep doing everything you can, even from your distance. And yes, the care baskets, cards, and other seemingly "little" items really will be appreciated. 3Generations in KY

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over 4 years ago

I can't agree more. I try hard to tell my distant brother that all I really need is someone to listen. I know he can't be here right now, his life and family are far away from us. He listens, encourages me and takes my suggestions about calling Dad and helping me 'nudge' him in the right direction for his own health and safety.

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