Every Sunday night, my former client Anna became exasperated when her 85-year-old mother, Lillian, had her once-a-week phone call with Anna's brother, Don. With Anna, Lillian was perennially sour, complaining of pain. But on her calls with Don, she sounded chipper and contented. Anna stewed that her mother felt entitled to dump her negative feelings on her all week but then shared only positive feelings with her son.
Part of the reason, as Anna well knew, was that her mother had always favored her brother and wanted to please, not worry, him. The fact that it was the dutiful daughter, not the distant son, who nowadays took care of her didn't change that.
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But Lillian's seemingly split personality and contradictory communication also reveals something about human behavior: All of us pick and choose what we say to whom and when because we have different relationships with different people and want to make different impressions on them. You may give one person the encyclopedia version of what you did that day and another the CliffsNotes. You may be emotionally expressive with a family member in one moment and sullen with another the next. You reserve the right to change your story or shade it various ways for different audiences.
These inconsistent messages can be confusing under ordinary circumstances but make family caregiving much more complicated. When an aging parent gives diverging accounts of herself to her adult children, it can inflame the natural tendency of rivalrous siblings to disagree about what that parent's condition and needs are. Caregiving works best as a team sport. For family members to work together in concerted fashion, they need to start with the same basic information and a common vision. Receiving different reports from a parent undermines that.
Without becoming mind readers, how can family caregivers sort through a care receiver's messages to figure out what she truly needs? Here are some ideas:
Listen for impression management. When an aging parent looks you in the eye and tells you how she really feels, you are likely inclined to take it for the literal truth. An alternative is to hear it as a part of the truth specially edited for you based on your relationship with her and the impression she may be trying to make. It's not that that parent is consciously trying to mislead you. It's more likely she subconsciously intends to protect you from worry so you can focus on your own life or, possibly, incite your worry to keep your attention riveted on her.