A parent’s declining health can either draw a family together or break it apart. Siblings may fail to take equal responsibility for caregiving and financial needs, often falling into the roles they held as children.
Although Anne Ziff is an only child, she’s counseled countless siblings. Ziff is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the author of Your End of Life Matters: How to Talk with Family and Friends.
Ultimately, sibling tensions erupt as parents need care because, “everyone wants to be the favorite child, but most of them don’t want to spend a lot of time doing things outside of their normal life,” Ziff says. “Or, to be more reasonable, they don’t have time. Or there is distance involved that precludes cooking three meals a week and dropping them off. Kids have to be able to talk.”
Easier said than done, right?
Why Conflicts Emerge
When a parent is no longer able to live independently and adult siblings have to transition into the role of decision-maker (whether financially or medically), it’s not uncommon for siblings to disagree on the best approach.
Everyone handles stress differently. Watching a parent decline in mental or physical abilities is emotionally challenging enough. Throw in the responsibility of making decisions about finances and care, and it can be downright overwhelming. Add your parents into the mix, and conflicts are almost inevitable.
Before you reach out to your siblings, you need to talk to your parents, Ziff says. “You need to know whether your parent has already talked with all the kids, either verbally or written. You don’t want to pick the phone up and say something to a sibling who is going to say, “Mom did what?”
How to Get More Help
Once you have a clear understanding of what your parents have — or have not — communicated to your siblings, schedule a sibling meeting, either face to face or via Skype. To prep for the meeting, write down a list of the caregiving tasks you have been doing for your parent and what needs to be done.
When the day of the sibling meeting comes, here are five strategies for getting more help from brothers and sisters.
1. Ask your siblings to help you create a new list of caregiving tasks.
Ask for input on how you can divide the list more equally among your siblings. If your sister lives out of town, it doesn’t make sense for her to take over hands-on jobs such as grocery shopping or home maintenance. But perhaps she’s willing to provide support and backup.
“One of the things I think works is that a distance child who can’t offer support on a regular basis can come in one weekend a month a do a lot of things,” Ziff says. “They can prepare foods that get frozen and easily be defrosted for dinners over the course of a month. They can take the parent or parents out to dinner or out to coffee or down to the park.
People can come in from out of town and be chatting and compassionate and go to the bank and figure out where the safety deposit boxes are and call the doctor. You can do that in a weekend. That weekend once a month can totally relive the local child.”
2. Acknowledge one another’s strengths.
Each of your siblings has a different personality and strengths, so consider delegating tasks according to each person’s skills and expertise. For example, if your sister has experience in the medical field, she could take on all of the doctor’s appointments. Or if your brother is the person in the family with good business sense, he might be able to handle legal issues or put together a budget. Recognize one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and ask each sibling to help with the tasks that they’re best suited to do.
3. Recognize if you actually want emotional support.
It might be that you don’t actually want your siblings to take over any caregiving tasks. Think about whether what you really need is emotional support. If you’ve been feeling lonely, isolated, or unappreciated, you might just need to ask your siblings to check in on you more. Be honest, and tell them it would really help if they recognized and appreciated what you’re doing.
4. Call in an expert.
Old habits die hard — and so do family dynamics. If you can’t get through the sibling meeting without you or your siblings criticizing the way you think another person is being (selfish, bossy, uncaring, irresponsible) or without getting into a heated argument about which of you should go to the doctor with Dad next week, then it might be time to call in an expert. Family therapists like Ziff, social workers, geriatric care managers, elder mediators, or faith leaders can help families through tough situations. Sometimes it takes an unbiased third party to resolve conflicts, focus conversations on the present, and find solutions that everyone can accept.
5. Know when to let it go.
Some siblings in the family may refuse to help care for your parents or may stop helping at some point. If your relationship with your siblings remains contentious and you are feeling emotional distress and confusion, find support and help elsewhere. Consider joining a caregiver support group where you can work on your challenges with a group that can offer emotional support and practical solutions.
Solutions to Common Caregiving Challenges
Caregiving for someone you love can be emotionally charged and sometimes frustrating, and there is no quick fix to the caregiving challenges that arise. But there are some general resources, conversation starters, and conflict diffusers that can help.
Download our Solutions to Common Caregiving Challenges eBook to learn about how to talk with family and friends about caregiving challenges, how to deal with a parent who is resistant to help, and how to keep your job while caregiving.