Dear Family Advisor

How can I reunite my family?

Last updated:

March 09, 2011

My mom and younger brother had a bad fight right before her dementia began to escalate, and he's trying to make up with her now. But when I told her he wants to visit, she reacted with anger and foul language. I don't want to stress her and, just as important, I don't want her to vent on him. What if that's his last memory of her?

I don't know whether to tell my brother that Mom's balking -- and risk hurting him -- or just put them together and hope for the best. How should I handle this?

As much as you care about your brother and your mother, you're not responsible for what either of them says or does. It's time to step back and allow the two of them to get together. If you keep them apart, he could wind up blaming you if they never reconcile.

However, before they do get together, there are a few things you can do to prepare both of them. First, have a good talk with your brother and explain how your mom is now. Be specific about how she behaves, what her days are like, and how her health is, so that he'll understand that she really doesn't have any ability to monitor what she says or how she reacts. Encourage him to get educated so that he understands that much of this is not -- and never was -- about him. Their initial falling-out was most likely a sign of the worsening disease. Anxiety, paranoia, and anger often start before or in tandem with forgetfulness. (I look back and realize there were signs of dementia rearing its ugly head years before my own mom's diagnosis.)

Next, try to create a meeting between your brother and mom that will be as pleasant as possible. Have it when she's fed and rested, in a place where she normally feels safe. You might ask her doctor if any anxiety medication could help take off the edge. If you know of any "tricks" that make her happy -- rubbing a fuzzy blanket, hearing a song from her youth, having a dish of warm pudding -- let your brother bring these things, or find other ways to soothe her. Even if she remains fussy, he'll feel better for having tried.

It's also OK if your mom gets upset when she sees your brother. It may seem horrendous at the time, but the good part about dementia is that there's often no rhyme or reason to what causes upset and what doesn't, and few emotions last for long. It will disrupt your routine for a few hours or perhaps days. Resist the urge to rush in and "fix it." Your brother has indicated that he needs closure, and since it's likely he'll live a lot longer than she will, it's important that he be the one who comes to a place of peace, even if getting there isn't easy.

As for an unpleasant visit being your brother's last memory of her, talk to him about that possibility. He may be willing to risk it rather than running away from conflict. You might even try a mock encounter with him, with you acting the way you've seen your mom act lately. It'll keep him from feeling totally inept if such a situation arises.

We have to stop being afraid of dementia. Yes, parts of it can be bizarre, but our loved ones are still just people -- our people -- and even foul words are just words. (And who knows -- it may make it easier for your brother to say anything and everything he needs to say if he realizes she can volley it right back.)

This doesn't have to be the last time your brother sees your mom. The more he visits, the more he'll learn how to calm her. (He may even find her odd behavior somehow endearing.) Remind him that the goal isn't to please her -- that might no longer be possible -- but to help himself.

It's easy, as a family member and a caregiver, to try to smooth things over and make everyone happy -- or at least try to keep them from pain. But no matter how we try, we can't always help or heal what's been done. Nor should we. We have to back off and not interfere more than is absolutely necessary. There are golden moments and important lessons we learn from life's heartbreaks and challenges. Trust that your brother will follow the path of healing that he's meant to find.

What you can do is offer him your support. Give your brother encouragement, hugs, and laughter, and share the camaraderie siblings can give to each other. Tell him how proud you are that he wants to forgive and reconnect with his mom. That makes him a courageous man.