It’s not shocking that siblings disagree. Whether you got into heated arguments over the “official” rules when playing Monopoly as kids or you still have squabbles about who is hosting Thanksgiving as adults, it’s normal to experience sibling conflict.
Conflict and turmoil are even more commonplace when siblings need to work together to care for an aging parent. To avoid sibling conflict, it’s helpful to be familiar with common sibling caregiver issues so you can keep the focus on what is best for your parent.
Here’s a look at the top hot-button issues:
1. The Balance of Caregiving
In families where one sibling is the primary caregiver, it’s common that the other siblings avoid responsibility by claiming they don’t have time. It’s likely that they don’t understand how quickly caregiving responsibilities can grow from running a few errands each week into a full-time job. If you’re the sibling who is shouldering a disproportionate burden of your parent’s care, that sense of unfairness can foster resentment.
This isn’t an uncommon scenario. Francine Russo, author of They're Your Parents, Too, says that in 90 percent of families, one sibling shoulders most of the caregiving burden.
Crystal DaSilva, Executive Director of The Arbors at Chicopee, points out that the primary sibling caregiver is also often a member of the sandwich generation, which comprises adults who have a parent age 65 or older who they care for while also raising a young child or supporting a grown child. “They’re doing everything, she says. “It becomes an issue.”
2. What Care Mom or Dad Really Needs
Another common issue is disagreements about what level of care a parent needs, especially in cases where one sibling lives close to the parent and the other lives far away. For instance, if you live nearby, you see your parent up close more often — the dirty house and shabby lawn and their increasing social withdrawal. Your sibling, on the other hand, sees a smiling face on Skype or hears the same voice over the phone they have for years.
“There is tension that exists between the frontline caregivers and the distant caregivers,” says Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, health care consultant, and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. “The folks who live far away often make up for in assertiveness what they lack in proximity. They question decisions the people on the front lines are making. Usually, there is disagreement about what the aging parent is going through, what their condition is, and what they need now and in the future.”
3. Money Matters
Mortgage payments, home modifications, medical expenses, insurance costs, basic living expenses — 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 avoid 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.” If your siblings aren’t chipping in for a parent’s care, you’re probably bearing some resentment.
4. Power Struggles
Another issue can be struggles over your parent's assignment of legal powers. For example, if you have been given your parents legal powers over finances or health, it might cause your siblings to feel excluded or like they’re losing control and can make consensus-building difficult.
“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.”
5. When Parents Are the Problem
It might not be a surprise, but sibling tensions can actually be intensified by the parents.
“We worked with a family where the mom told the family members what she thought they wanted to hear, so different family members heard different things,” recalls 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. “Not only did that cause conflict among the siblings, but they also started being concerned about memory issues because the messages were different.”
A parent who is resistant to help can cause other challenges. “If the person you love needs help but doesn’t want it and starts blaming the sibling who is the primary caregiver, that can bring up a lot of guilt,” says Donna Bigelow, Executive Director of The Arbors at Greenfield. “Suddenly, siblings are second-guessing one another. It’s a huge trigger for siblings to not be on the same page.”
Fortunately, there are many strategies for building consensus among siblings. For more information, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.