Do I tell Mom that my sister has a terminal illness?

8 answers | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 86-year-old mother is in a nursing home in rapidly declining health due to pulmonary fibrosis. My older sister lives out of state and has recently been diagnosed with a terminal alcohol-related disease and given six months to live. My mom has not seen my sister in nearly four years. How do I tell my mom about my sister's terminal illness?

Expert Answers

Jennifer Serafin, N.P. is a registered nurse and geriatric nurse practitioner at the Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco.

This is a really hard position for you to be in, so I really feel for you.  I have had patients who have had their children get sick, pass away, or have other problems.  It is always tough for a parent to hear this no matter how old their children are.

I am sure your mother is aware of your sister's problems, and it sounds like they have already had their issues since they haven't seen each other in 4 years.  So, to be honest, I am sure your mother will not be totally surprised to hear your news.  But, that still does not make it an easy situation for either of you.

So, how do you tell your mother about your sister's illness?  You do not mention if she has dementia or not, so I am not sure how much she will understand.  If she is fully aware, and since her own health is an issue, I would try to do it as simply as possible.  Basically, I would tell your mother the truth: that your sister isn't doing well and has some pretty serious health problems related to her drinking.  Then, see if she will ask you any follow up questions.  Answer all her questions as honestly as you can, but if she doesn't ask alot of questions, she may not want to know all the details.  Only you know your mother, so you will have to see how she does. 

If she is demented and you are worried she may not understand, again, I would go with the simple "sis isn't doing well and has some serious health problems" and see how much of that she understands.  If she really doesn't understand it at all, I wouldn't push her to try to understand. 

My last thought is to ask the staff of the nursing home for advice.  Since they probably know your mother well, they may have additional insight to help you with this problem.  They also will be able to help support her during this tough time.

Hope that this helps.  Best of luck to you.

Community Answers

Mariakm answered...

I had the same problem last year, my husband's oldest son was dying of lung cancer and my husband had alzheimers.  Once in awhile the son would call and I would tell husband he had cancer, and toward the last I told him, Ray was getting worse.  When the call came, I sat beside him on the davenport and told him Ray has passed away and was no longer suffering.  I held him and we both cried together.  After a while we had some ice cream.  He nver mentioned Ray again, except for one time in a NH, he told a aid he had a son Ray. Ray died in Feb, dh and his bro died Oct 22 and 23. that was enought for that year. bro lived in Fl and we in MT.

James ballard answered...

9:14 PM EST...I find "Jennifer" giving consistently good advise; all I would add is if your mother "stresses out" too easily or prone to anxiety, etc, or has a delicate heart condition, let her down easy. She's made it to 86 and as as long as she's not confused or prone to hystrionics, it sounds like your mother could handle the news.

Are you and your sister communicating ? Is she in control enough of her faculties to help you make the decision ? I would advise you not to let her put the entire burden on you; alcoholics love to dump !!  Luck to you and your family. J.B. 6/23/09

A fellow caregiver answered...

I talked with my sister last night - and she (as usual) is in denial; her daughter (age 36) and I are flying up there this weekend to get the "nitty gritty," as we can't seem to get a straight answer out of either my sister or her husband (both "recovering" alcoholics) - and I have had the entire burden pretty much all my life, so this is nothing new.  I have not even broached the subject with my mom, as I wanted to see for myself exactly what is going on.  And I think Jennifer's advice is dead on - my sister's life has been a pattern of histrionics, and my mom is well aware of her alcohol problem. While I don't think it will catch her out of the blue, it is still going to be a tremendous blow that she may lose a child, no matter what the age.  And the fact that she may not see her again compounds the problem.  I'm just winging it, but think Jennifer has nailed the situation.  Thanks to all of you!

James ballard answered...

9:48 AM EST...By your accounting, it appears you're right...doesn't look like much "recovery" has been happening..."We'll let little sister take care of it"....that's called dumping. But guess what ? "Little sister" is "taking care of it". Looks like a pattern to me.

Perhaps unwittingly, you've let this go on, and now that events are approaching critical mass, you're trying to salvage what may not be salvagable.

Your older sister may have a multitude of reasons why she nolonger cares; some may be legitimate. Think for a moment. What if "little sister" wasn't around to do the patch-up work, what would happen then ?

Maybe now more than ever, it's time for you to see what'll happen if "little sister" makes "big sister" more responsible for her inaction.

However the chips fall, it appears you have no reason to feel guilty about it.

It's called giving yourself room to breathe.

And maybe, just maybe, "big sister" can grab a few last moments of fresh air too !

J.B. 6/24/09

A fellow caregiver answered...

when our mom had open heart surgery two years ago, I flat out told my sister she needed to get down here and see our mother - that I was tired of making all the decisions myself and needed some emotional support in dealing with mom.  She said she just could not get down here (this was in the midst of one of her major drinking bits).  Said she was just "not in good enough health due to blood pressure" to come down.  AND, when our mom had severe pneumonia three months ago, I again called my sister and told her quite frankly that I didn't think mom would be here by Christmas and if she wanted to see her ALIVE, to get her butt down here that her mother needed to see her.  My sister has been trying "to get well enough" to get down here, said that she knows I have had it all on me, and she is so sorry, she is eaten up with guilt, etc., etc., ad nauseum.   In always taking care of things, I am fully aware that I have contributed to her pattern.  However, inaction on my part would not have been in the best interest of my mother, regardless of whether I am letting myself be dumped on. I love my sister; I hate what she has done with her life - I am hoping when I go up there this weekend to be able to enjoy just being together somewhat.  Then once I get back, I'll decide what (if anything) to address with my mother.

James ballard answered...

11:46 PM EST...Well see now, there you go...what'd I tell ya...just needed a stranger to tell you these things.

In light of the fact that your mother has had heart surgery, and considering her age, you may just have to fudge things a little with her and ease up the burden on yourself. It's possible you may be underestimating your mother's expectations...she may have already second guessed the situation.

Sounds like "big sister's" used up all her excuses; alcoholics & drug addicts always say they're sorry...then...opps...tomorrow comes with a vengance...then they're still sorry 'cept they ain't 'cause they're not do'in anything about it but that's OK 'cause "little sis" will take care of it won't she now...

You seem to be still in control of your faculties. Can't tell you much from here on. I'd wish you luck, but will power may be the order of the day.

J.B. 6/24/09

A fellow caregiver answered...

Yep, I think you are right - I need to lower my expectations of my sister EVER contributing - it is what it is.  Thanks for any input - I do appreciate it!