Of demented parents and my brother's pants

My father died. My mom has Alzheimer's. My brother wears his trousers too high

Published May 2, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I love my brother dearly. We're 13 months apart, but I feel like he's my twin. We survived our parents' horrible marriage. We've both been very successful and have accumulated quite a bit of wealth, so we live comfy lives.

I left my birth state to get away from our parents, especially my mother. For 25 years my brother stayed near them and took care of them -- tuned up their cars, cleaned out rain gutters, replaced hot water heaters and dishwashers, while I only dropped by for a rare lunch or dinner.

When our parents could no longer live independently, they suddenly moved 1,000 miles away from their home of 50 years. This was an irrational move, and they failed miserably.

My brother and I intervened, and I offered to move them to my state, where assisted living is quite affordable. After they had gotten the medical and dental care that they truly needed, my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia and mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Their irrational behaviors grew worse. I petitioned the court for conservatorship and guardianship of both of them. Mother blew through a $70,000 checking account, spending the money on pure junk. Her hoarding was overwhelming.

And their relationship grew more contentious. While we waited for the legal wheels to move in our favor so that I could have the means to fully protect these two people, my mother severely harmed my father and he died.

Mother became more irrational than ever, and she fought back, hiring her own attorney. Both of them tried their best to discredit me by accusing me of stealing all of my mother's assets. Mother insisted that only my brother could be her conservator. I dropped my petition for guardianship, as a conservatorship would offer more protection. With my brother controlling mother's every cent, she could not hire moving companies to help her run away to Australia or Florida or Idaho, wherever her extreme paranoia directed her.

My brother wholeheartedly agreed to step into the role as our mother's court-appointed conservator, not for her, but as a huge favor to me so I could end this legal nightmare. And after waiting for over a year for this legal mess to settle out, we were finally granted the legal means to protect her from herself -- and from a potentially predatory world, should she succeed in her attempts to live independently.

She is now in a memory-loss care facility that is near my house so I can oversee her care. With my brother's help our mother is well cared for.

I owe my brother quite a bit but feel like I'm failing him. He's now 66, never been married, no children and no live-together lovers. He's retired from a very successful career, owns a huge house that he built, is an excellent athlete and has the energy to be out there in the world still possessing the joy and wonder of life.

He would like to find a lady friend, but most women give him one look, smile and turn away. For some strange reason he wears his pants up close to his armpits, making him look like a little old man. And from hiking his trousers so high, his private parts are quite visible. My daughters have asked me to say something to him. After all, they don't want to see their uncle's junk, and they feel that the ladies who smile at him are quietly making fun of him.

How do I have this conversation with him, not make him feel like a fool, and encourage him to go shopping? He's quite sensitive. And we can talk about private subjects, but I just never want him to feel like he's been smirked at by the ladies he would like to get to know.

Want the Best for My Bro

Dear Want the Best,

You have been through a horrendous ordeal. You and your brother have worked together to bring stability to a situation that is among the most terrifying and difficult for adults to endure. I, too, have worked with a brother and other family members to manage the unpredictable and often tragic behavior of parents with dementia. So my heart goes out to you.

Your letter resonates with a nearly surreal combination of the tragic and the absurd.

Here is how your story comes across to the unconscious mind: Your mother murdered your father, and your brother wears his pants too high. That's the gist of it. That's how it comes across. Not maybe to the rational mind. But to the body, the kid, the psyche.

Your careful language is spooky. You say, "My mother severely harmed my father and he died." It may be that in the world of law and evidence she did not murder him. But when we deal with our own parents, we are often dealing with them in an emotional way, with our dreaming mind, the child's mind. To that mind, it does sound like your mother killed your father.

Even if that were not the case, the mere sight of parents acting crazy alarms the dreaming mind and sets us off on a panicked mission to solve what cannot be solved. After such an ordeal, you may feel off balance, and you may find yourself focusing on items that are superficially trivial but have deeper significance. For instance, it now seems important that your brother find a mate and wear his pants the right way. Why would that be? Is there some kind of emotional repair going on? Have you perhaps transferred your lifelong hopes for a peaceful and happy family life to your brother? I'm not saying you have, but I am saying it's  time, after such a wrenching emotional experience, to watch for the ways that our psyches seek to repair and find balance.

Having lost your father, you may feel some emptiness. You may be wishing that you could re-create something. Or your brother may be standing in for your dad: Since you could not save your dad, you may be motivated in some way to save your brother, by finding a wife for him.

Who wears the pants in the family? Pants are about power and also about sexuality. Maybe your brother is signaling that he does not want a mate. Or maybe he is conflicted; maybe he wants a mate but wants to be accepted as someone who wears his pants up around his armpits. He could be signaling many things by this behavior. But we don't need to get inside your brother's head to do him some good. We can just take him shopping.

The humor of the pants situation also says something about the family. You and he have both done well. You've weathered the storm. You survived the most terrifying thing for a child, which is to see the parents go mad. So maybe also you now deserve some harmless fun.

My suggestion would be to go shopping with your brother. Since you've both done well financially, you could frame this shopping trip as a well-deserved reward and splurge. The reason I say to splurge is that what you will be spending money on in a high-end place is the sensitivity and expertise of the sales staff. Your brother needs to be fitted with pants that make him look good. That's what expert clothing salespeople know how to do. If gentle criticism about his current style comes from a salesperson, he may be able to hear it. The salesperson will know how to guide him to the right pants.

You might even call and explain to a salesperson in advance that you are bringing in your brother and you want to find him some pants that fit right, and that it's a delicate situation.

Also, this shopping trip can be a good bonding experience. Go shopping, get him some excellent-looking outfits, and then go have a good lunch or dinner. Thank him for everything he's done. Go boating. Jump out of airplanes. Book a hunting trip. Hang out. Breathe a sigh of relief. Things are stable for now.

I keep coming back to that paragraph where you say that your mother severely harmed your father and he died. I can't quite get over that. It contains such intensity of feeling and strange distance! "Severely harmed him and he died."

If the severe harm she did to him caused his death, then she killed him. And if that is the case, then you are walking around with a heavy psychic burden and I suggest that you seek to unpack this awful truth with the help of a professional. In fact, even if your mother did not kill your father, what you have been through is likely to be the kind of thing from which the sensitive psyche tries to hide in one way or another, and when the psyche tries to hide, we find ourselves doing strange things for reasons that are hidden from us. We have hidden those reasons. Our psyches are trying to restore balance. So maybe we do very nourishing things, like start gardens or spend time in nature. And maybe we find important emotional support in helping others or working in groups to bring good things into the world. But we may also find ourselves turning to strange or destructive behavior, and the connection between our behavior and what we have survived may be hidden from us.

So either way, and especially since you can afford it, I would do yourself a favor and find a really great psychotherapist. Not that you sound crazy. That's not it at all, and I wish that seeking therapy in such situations were more broadly supported as just a normal thing to do. To have someone just compassionately witness what you have been through can be a great help.

And then get your brother some good pants.

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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