When an elderly parent becomes unwell or unable to maintain full independence, the child is often the one to step in to provide his/her parent with the loving care they need. Caregiving for a parent is always difficult, but when there are several siblings involved, everything becomes that much more complicated.
There are many different ways that adult children react to their parent becoming dependant on the help of others, and when there is more than one child, these individualized reactions can cause strife and bitter feelings, unless dealt with correctly.
The following are some common ways that this situation can (and does) play out:
1. Siblings Who Refuse to Help
When the child of an aging parent has other siblings around, he/she may be tempted to take the easy way out and allow the burden to fall on someone else’s shoulders. This can obviously cause a lot of resentment among the siblings who end up with all or most of the responsibilities.
One such example is Gloria P.*, who shoulders the entire burden of caring for her aging father.
As Gloria shared, “The responsibilities of caring for my dad, who has dementia, are daunting – and my brothers never visit or help in any way. I took in his dog, I pay his bills, I drive him places – but they do nothing, and honestly, I resent that.”
Carol Bradley Bursack1 recommends several ways to deal with siblings who refuse to take on their fair share of responsibilities:
- Ask for help. Be direct and tell them exactly what you need or what they might do to ease your burden.
- Have a care plan. A care plan can help you organize tasks and responsibilities to make it easier for them to get involved. Also consider keeping an online medical & health record so that you’re always on the same page.
- Let go of expectations. By learning to let go of your expectations and hurt and allowing yourself the liberty to find help elsewhere without feelings of resentment, you are ensuring your own peace of mind.
2. Siblings Who Forcefully Take Control
Alternatively, there may be several children who would like to help – but another sibling refuses their help, choosing to control the situation and have the last word in their parents’ care.
“The opposite problem also exists, when one sibling takes on the entire burden, believing he/she must do everything and shutting out the other siblings. In my family, our oldest sister took Mom on as her personal project. We’re not allowed to have an opinion. Yes, she’s good with financial stuff and Medicare – but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be involved in our mother’s care! She just won’t let us do anything for our mother, despite our protests,” says Diane S.
3. Multiple Siblings with Conflicting Interests
Even when all or most of the children pitch in and/or get involved in their parents’ care, there can be a lot of conflict caused by different opinions, or, according to Alexis Abramson, gerontologist and author of “The Caregiver’s Survival Handbook,” even by pre-existing tension between siblings:
“When siblings squabble over who will care for Mom or Dad or refuse to help one another with caregiving tasks, the problem often isn’t about caregiving itself, but conflicts and power struggles that may have existed since childhood.” – Alexis Abramson
Many caregivers and senior care managers recommend circumventing such issues by having a neutral third party involved as a mediator.
If the main issue is the differences of opinions, one great recommendation is given by Heidi T., an experienced family caregiver:
“Your first consideration should always be to fill the wishes of the parent wherever possible. If not, try to make the kinds of decisions the parent would have made in the past. This way, instead of getting your personal feelings involved and doing what’s best for yourself, you know you are doing the best you can for your parent.”
Ellie L. from New Jersey is one of seven siblings and she often struggles with keeping the peace between her siblings. The following is her take on sharing the caregiving burden, as well as the mindset that helps her ensure that her mother gets the best care possible without any hard feelings among her siblings.
“One of the hardest things about having an elderly mother,” Ellie begins, “is juggling the many opinions and keeping peace. It’s really true what they say – one mother can take care of seven children, but seven children can’t take care of one mother.
“The first thing I try to remember,” she continues, “is that if other family members give opinions or try to be ‘helpful’ they are doing it from love.
“Everyone makes mistakes; no one does a perfect job taking care of others. If you don’t like the way your sibling is handling it – realize that she’s doing the best she can.
“In my own family situation, I have no reason to suspect abuse. Of course, if one does suspect some kind of abuse, one has to take action!! If not, you have to trust the caregiver to make the best decisions he/she can. (It doesn’t help to mix in for everything… too many cooks spoil the broth!)
“Sometimes, my siblings make decisions that don’t make sense or that were wrong – but once it happened, it’s over and there’s nothing I can do about it. Instead of causing family discord because of the past, I choose to accept it and move on.
“If I feel strongly that something needs to be done a certain way, while my sister feels the opposite, I need to remember that two people can have opposite opinions and neither one is wrong. For example, I feel that our Mom needs evaluation for depression, and my sister thinks I’m just imagining things. In this case (and in many other cases like this one), there is no danger to giving in and waiting some time before re-evaluating her condition. It gets tricky if you think that there is danger, but I find that it’s pretty rare that it gets to that. After all, unless you’re dealing with unreasonable people, your siblings all want what’s best for their mom.
“Years ago, when my sister’s mother-in-law was unwell, she had one sister who was mostly involved in the caregiving. She once complained, ‘They live out of town and they like to have opinions. I’m here, taking care of everything, and my siblings in another town have an opinion on how I do it! You know, if you really want to have opinions, move here and do it yourself.’
“When I heard that,” Ellie concludes, “I made up my mind that if my sisters are going to do things I’m not able to take on myself, I have no right to have an opinion.”
Jessica C., who helps care for both of her parents, agrees with this: “My parents live with my sister. We have three other siblings who live around the country. When I spent a few months at my sister’s home (which is in another state), I gained a new appreciation for what she does for my parents, as well as how difficult caring for them can be. My other siblings, who didn’t share this appreciation, tended to bark out orders. Because of my experience, I have learned to allow my sister to make the decisions, and I encourage my other siblings to do the same. The most important thing is the care and wellbeing of our parents.”
Top 5 Tips for Shared Caregiving
When sharing the caregiving burden with your siblings, Ellie recommends keeping the following pointers in mind:
- People make mistakes – and sometimes what you believe is a mistake may actually not be a mistake at all.
- Two opposite opinions can both be right.
- Appreciate what they’re doing instead of thinking about how you could do it better.
- You all share love for your parent and the fact that you have different opinions is okay.
- Always support each other and respect each other’s opinions. This is especially important because, similar to parents who undermine each other and thus undermine their child’s growth, siblings who don’t support each other in their parent’s end-of-life journey end up undermining their care – and this is true even when you’re in the right.
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Featured image: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
About the author: Hanna Landman lives in New Jersey with her husband and child. She writes for AvaCare Medical, an online medical supply store servicing seniors and the homebound across the US. You can see some of her published work about senior care and more here.