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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published November 26 2011

Bradley Bursack: Mom’s mood changes when children visit

Dear Carol: My 84-year-old mother’s entire personality changes when my siblings visit.

She suffered from a traumatic brain injury several years ago. She does quite well if she leads a quiet life, with good rest and not too much activity. However, when my siblings visit occasionally, they stay over a weekend. During their stay, they encourage her to stay up very late with them, drink cocktails and cook for them. It takes days for her to recuperate after they leave.

I am Mom’s main caregiver, so I’m the only one who sees her exhaustion after they leave. I love my siblings, but they have a difficult time accepting the natural changes we need to make for Mom’s well-being. I don’t want to start a drama, but I dread each visit for my mother’s sake.

I’m amazed when my siblings say that Mom loves to cook for them. These days she hates to cook as it exhausts her, but she won’t tell them and they don’t see how hard on her it is. How can I get through to my siblings that mom needs to slow down, when she insists on putting on this act? – James

Dear James: It’s quite common that adult children who don’t see their parents regularly remain in denial about the aging process.

If your mom is like most elderly parents, she gets so excited over the approaching visit of her “kids” from afar that she has an energy rush. She also wants to show them her best side. During their visit, if it’s short, she can pull off the act that she’s stronger than she actually is. When they leave, she crashes. And, of course, your visiting siblings go home assuming that you’ve overstated Mom’s failing condition because she was “so good” when they visited.

You need to tactfully let them know, without blaming them in any way, that she tries so hard to be like she used to be by cooking for them, because she’s a good mom. Bend over backward to let them know that they couldn’t possibly see the real picture because your mom’s a good actress. Of course, if they stayed around longer they’d see that she is becoming frail, but suggesting that they stick around, or come more often, could cause the drama you wisely want to avoid.

Basically, it sounds like your siblings would rather live in denial than cope with the pain of reality. Somewhere along the line they need to accept the truth. Perhaps you could send them a copy of this column. Also, if your mom’s doctor can’t provide that insight for them, maybe you could ask a family friend to talk with them. It may help.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.