When Caregiving Siblings Squabble

Related topics: Caregivers, Caregiver Skills, Care for the Caregiver

Here's a family caregiver pet peeve: A sibling comes in from out of town and criticizes the care the local sibling provides. That’s just one of the pitfalls brothers and sisters might encounter as the family gathers for the holidays!

Caregiver brother and sister arguing on the couch in front of the Christmas tree

Holiday visits are the time when many families get together—and therefore are also the time when disagreements about the care of elder loved ones can come to the forefront.

Today we have a "caregiver crunch." Smaller families mean there are fewer adult children available to provide care as parents age. There were plenty of baby boomers to care for their parents—but the boomers themselves had fewer kids. Now, there are many only-child caregivers struggling to care for parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.

These singleton caregivers often wish they had brothers and sisters to share the load—yet sibling caregivers face challenges of their own. In a University of Pennsylvania study of family caregivers, many reported that dealing with their loved one's health conditions was less stressful than conflict with their sibling over their loved one's care!

Siblings might disagree about where their parent should live, and the level of care they need. Mom has early-stage Alzheimer's—how independently can she live? Should Dad still be driving? If not, how will he get to church? Is his home too much for him? Should he move to an assisted living community, or would in-home care be better? Who will take off work to go with Grandma to doctor appointments? End-of-life decisions can be especially fraught, especially if a parent can no longer express their wishes and left no advance directive.

If you and your siblings are having a rocky time of it, here are some ways to keep the peace while providing the best, most appropriate care for your parents:

Caregiver siblings having a good conversation

Call a family meeting. Do it sooner rather than later. Even if Mom and Dad are hale and hearty during this year's holiday gathering, carve out some time to talk about the future while everyone's together. If the folks already need care, or there are signs that they soon will, don't sweep the subject under the rug. It's time to make a plan! Be sure to include your parents in the conversation every step of the way—leaving them out can be a recipe for failed cooperation. Get follow-up conversations on the calendar.

If one sibling has provided the lion's share of care, acknowledge their role, and listen. Quite often, a sibling who lives near an elderly parent ends up as the point person. Maybe their parent even lives with them. Over time, this sibling's duties have likely expanded along with the elder parent’s needs. Primary caregivers grit their teeth when another sibling flies in from out of town, only to criticize. The less-involved sib may mean well, but may not have all the information. Don’t be a "caresplainer." Instead, offer to help.

Share the load. During the meeting, create a list of tasks that need to be done. Put it in writing. How much time, money and effort will be involved? Who will do what? It may be impractical for siblings who live at a distance to be in charge of day-to-day tasks, such as taking Mom to the doctor or helping Dad shave. But they can do other things—paperwork, help locate support resources, help pay for the cost of care, visit the folks more often, or have the folks visit them to provide respite time for the sibling who’s on the scene.

Don't let old family dynamics derail you. This is a time when resentments from yesteryear can bubble to the surface. "Mom loved you best." "My brother could do no wrong." "Mom ignores my kids when my sister's family is in town." Yes, some families are close and supportive—while others have the family dynamics of a soap opera. Especially if you have been estranged or distant from a sibling, agree to put "old business" aside and focus on creating a workable plan.

Talk about money. Recent estimates are that primary family caregivers spend an average of $7,000 each year on their loved one's care. In addition, their careers often suffer, and they jeopardize their own retirement savings. Siblings should work together to divide costs equitably, and also to understand the degree to which parents can pay for their own care.

Bring in experts. If tensions are high and the decision-making process has deteriorated into disagreements and stonewalling, it's time for some professional guidance. Elder law attorneys, counselors and financial planners can help. Many families today engage the assistance of a geriatric care manager (also known as an Aging Life Care Professional). These knowledgable experts can locate local resources and also provide elder mediation services to help family members reach an agreement.

In her book They're Your Parents Too: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy, author Francine Russo refers to this stage as "the twilight of the family." The way that siblings navigate this period together will help determine the nature of their relationship going forth—even whether they will continue to have one.

A word about stepfamilies

The steep rise in the divorce rate over the past few decades—and an accompanying increase in remarriage—means that today, there are more blended families. Maybe it's a "yours, mine and ours" situation, where the family blended early on and all the siblings feel like a family. Or maybe the family never really blended, and there are plenty of old resentments and estrangements. If senior parents married later in life, stepsiblings might have met briefly at their parents' wedding, only to have little contact going forth until a crisis brings them together again. Providing care, already an emotionally fraught situation, can quickly create friction and disagreement. The two sets of adult children may have vastly different ideas and priorities. Calling in an expert can be especially important in this situation.


Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2018

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