Siblings share both genes and family environment, but research shows siblings are similar in personality only about 20 percent of the time. When a parent is no longer able to live independently and adult siblings have to transition into the role of decision-maker, it’s common for siblings to disagree on the best approach.
“Different siblings have different personalities,” says Barry J. Jacobs, a Clinical Psychologist and Health Care Consultant and Author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers.
It’s not surprising, then, that old patterns can resurface.
“People can be competent in their professional lives and successful in their careers, but when they interact with their siblings, they may revert back to old patterns — and triggers and grudges can resurface,” says Crystal Thorpe, a Professional Family Mediator and Co-Founder of Elder Decisions, in Norwood, Massachusetts, and a Co-Author of Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles & Eldercare Crises. “They might interact in ways they did when they were growing up that don’t fully reflect who they are now.”
Here’s a look at six common roles siblings assume in times of caregiving stress.
1. The Boss
This is the sibling who thinks they always know what’s best. It is common for this person to discredit all other family members’ experiences and knowledge. Maybe The Boss in your family works in healthcare and thinks they’re the only one qualified to care for your parents, or perhaps The Boss is the oldest child who is used to being in charge.
The Boss might also manifest as The Arguer, who can make any decision-making process feel exhausting.
“It’s an unusual family situation when the decision-making and care responsibilities are equally distributed,” Jacobs says. “There can often be a lot of jockeying for power.”
2. The Avoider
This is the sibling who avoids involvement at all costs, for any multitude of reasons. Maybe the Avoider in your family says they just can’t bear to see Mom or Dad in this condition so they defer responsibility to others on a regular basis.
“Parents have always taken care of their kids, and all of a sudden, the kids are responsible for caring for their parents,” says Joanne Housianitis, Director of Outreach for The Arbors at Dracut and The Arbors at Stoneham.
Watching a parent decline in mental or physical abilities is emotionally challenging enough. Add in taking on tasks for which you have no training for and making decisions about finances and care, and it can be downright overwhelming.
3. The Swooper
This is the long-distance sibling who usually only comes home around the holidays.
“The Swooper comes in from out of state and thinks everything needs to change, changes things, and then swoops away,” Thorpe says. “It can be positive — someone with fresh eyes can see something. It can also feel very disruptive and leave the local caregiver feeling unappreciated or not understood.”
4. The Pauper
This is the sibling who is unable to visit or assist in any way because of financial reasons. Often, the Pauper avoids any type of assistance to an aging parent by claiming they can’t miss work or they can’t afford a plane ticket.
The financial burden of caring for an aging parent is a large one. In families where one sibling is the primary caregiver, it’s common that the other siblings shirk responsibility because they feel like they don’t have the money to contribute to the cost of caregiving. Let’s be real: Most caregivers “don’t have the money.”
5. The Whiner
This is the sibling who is unable to focus on parent’s needs or be a part of the care team because their own life is so hard, they are too busy, or are ill themselves. Although some complaints may be legitimate, the chronic whining during get-togethers or family meetings is problematic.
6. The Peacemaker
This is the sibling who often gets overlooked and can have a hard time feeling heard. Often soft-spoken, The Peacemaker spends the majority of their time gluing all the family relationships back together again after disagreements. The Peacemaker often sacrifices their own needs and doesn’t share their feelings or opinions for fear of starting an argument or being criticized.
As a professional family mediator, Thorpe says it’s important to recognize these patterns may be at play but not to make judgments or assumptions based on them.
“As mediators, we see each person for who they are and what they bring to the table, not in terms of stereotypes but really in terms of their experiences and perspective,” she says. “The generalizations can be helpful, but we want to test those assumptions.”
Not only is it common for siblings to revert back to old patterns, but it’s equally as common for their brothers and sisters to assume they’re going to act that way, too.
“It’s human nature to make assumptions about people, to not recognize that people might have grown and changed, and to not give people the opportunity to be a different person,” Thorpe says. “Siblings often don’t recognize one another’s new skills.”
This is a difficult time, so have compassion for yourself, and try to have compassion for your siblings. You don’t have to excuse negative behavior, but try to imagine the fear, pain, or need that is causing your siblings to react as they do. That kind of understanding can defuse a lot of sibling conflict.
For more information about navigating adult sibling relationships, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.