What Can I Do From Far Away?

Denise
Hello Denise,

My sister (my only sibling) and her 20+ year live-in boyfriend (they purchased home together) have been taking care of our mother for the last 8 years or so. Our mother has Alzheimer’s and lives with them. My sister doesn’t work and they have done a remarkable job caring for Mother and I’m truly grateful and I have praised them endlessly for what they do. My sister has taken care of all the legal, i.e., Will, Power of Attorney, etc. and has taken all of my mother’s life earnings and monthly pension/benefits. This is well over 6 figures. She has never shared any of the details and I don’t ask as she would blow-up and I don’t care about the money whatsoever. I do care about my sister’s constant emails complaining about taking care of our mother even while she’s being paid for it. Her emails are beyond hateful with remarks like; I don’t love my Mother or her, etc. I am single, generally work seven days a week and live over 2,000 miles away. Due to finances and work, I am only able to visit once or twice a year. No matter what I say or do it’s never enough. She acts as if I live next door and refuse to help. She is the quintessential martyr. It’s never about our mother, but rather always about her.

What can I do living so far away? If I lived in the same town I would be honored to share in the caring for our mother. I can’t handle anymore of her guilt trips. I’m sure this is something you’ve dealt with many times and any suggestions would be greatly appreciated?

Hello,

I’ll do my best to help.

First, you are involved in caring for your mom. You allow an outlet for your sister to vent her frustrations, you visit when you can, and you stay involved so you know what’s going on with your mom’s care. And, certainly, praising your sister on a regular basis is wonderful.

Just as your worry probably clouds your day, your sister’s constant caregiving and focus on your mom probably rules her. It may be that your sister is so focused on your mom that the only time she focuses on herself is in her e-mail messages to you, which is why the messages seem so self-involved. While it’s great that your sister receives money for providing care, it can be said that the job requires 24-hour-a-day, seven day a week care—and no money in the world can reimburse for that.

Often times, providing intense care for someone with Alzheimer’s can result in overwhelming negative emotions, such as frustration and anger. In my coaching sessions and teleclasses with family caregivers, I encourage family caregivers to vent—I would rather they tell me what makes them really angry rather than their care recipients.

Her anger at you, though, may impede your ability to help, simply because she’s so mad she may not be able to think anything other than: “You got off easy!”

My suggestion would be to send your sister an e-mail. Reiterate how much you appreciate all her care for your mom. Then, write: “I just visited a web site called Caregiving.com. Have you ever visited? I’m curious as to what you think.” (We often hear from visitors who find great comfort just in knowing that they are not alone.)

In addition, you might write: “Just to make sure that you have what you need, let’s schedule a phone call just to touch base.”

Then, during your phone call, let your sister vent (although if she becomes belligerent, sets your boundaries and end the call). After she’s had a chance to let you know how she’s doing, then take the opportunity to ask questions: “Knowing how insidious Alzheimer’s disease is, how long do you think Mom can live at home?” “What’s the toughest part of the day for you?”, “What responsibilities would you like to delegate?”, “How much time do you have for yourself during the day?”, “How can we increase that time?” and so on.

As much as you can, keep the conversation from becoming personal by sticking to your goal: Gaining an understanding of what your sister and your mom really need.

You can suggest to your sister that you’d like to help by researching options in the community that can help. Offer to contact the local Area Agency on Aging in your sister’s community (call the ElderCare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 for a referral) to find out about program/services for your mom (such as adult day centers, places your mom can go during the day for socialization, activities and a meal) and your sister (the agency has funding to help family caregivers such as your sister). Then, call the agency, gather the information and share it with your sister.

Reiterate how much your appreciate all that she does and how much you want to help her. And, ask her: How can you best help her? Listen and then work toward a compromise. For instance, you may not be able to help regularly, but you can stay with your mom one week during the year so your sister can get away. Or, your sister may disclose that she hates paying the bills—that’s certainly a task you can take on from a distance.

Often times, the family caregiver wants help but really struggles to ask for it. Asking how you can help may be the best ice-breaker.

As you work toward more effective communication with your sister (and you may find phone calls are better than e-mail), then begin asking about legal documents and financial matters in regard to your mom. In case of an emergency, it’s really important that you have the information, as well as access to and copies of original documents. Let her know that you trust her, but you just don’t trust Fate and you’d rather not take any chances that something happens and you aren’t in a position to step in and help your mom.

The local Area Agency on Aging will be a good resource for you, as well with how best to help your sister. A social worker with the agency may be able to arrange a phone call for both you and your sister and act as mediator to find the best solutions for your mom and your sister.

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