What to Do When Siblings Disagree About Care for Aging Parents


What are the most important things you can do when you and your siblings disagree about how to support your parents when they need some help?

Author Rick Lauber worked alongside his siblings to help care for his aging parents. Here is what he learned.

“Look for help.” It’s easy advice for family caregivers, but finding help may not be simple. Initially, family caregivers can look to their immediate family to share caregiving responsibilities and help their aging parents. Expectations that this arrangement will go well can be easily shattered. Assumptions made can result in additional stress, indecision, anger, and broken family dynamics.

How to Avoid Caregiver Sibling Resentment

My own parental caregiving was a joint effort with my two sisters. Yes, we had our skirmishes but no full-out wars. If you have or expect a problem, you can make things work with the following resolutions:

Resolution #1 - Begin an early dialogue.

My sisters and I mistakenly waited until the first parental healthcare emergency to start talking about caregiving. To avoid this mistake, we should have begun to plan before an emergency occurred. Even if your parents are functioning well physically and cognitively, talk now before something happens. Granted, these conversations may be uncomfortable. My sisters and I tentatively approached our parents to express our own concerns — we were worried about their management and if they should be driving.

Resolution #2 - Assign a sibling as the primary caregiver.

My parents’ retirement home provided a quieter lifestyle, warmer temperatures, and idyllic ocean views. My sisters and I, however, lived many miles away and couldn’t regularly visit. With our Mom’s Leukemia diagnosis and our Dad’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, my sisters and I had to respond quickly. We appointed each of us as a “primary caregiver” to travel, stay with our parents, and help when and wherever possible for each parent. The primary caregiver would regularly report back to, update, and involve the other siblings. This way, each “primary caregiver” sibling took the lead and shared the caregiving with fewer hard feelings.

Resolution #3 - Utilize each other’s strengths.

People can excel in certain areas, so why not benefit from these skills? A brother or sister who is an accountant may be far better suited for dealing with a parent’s financial matters. Without having any professional caregiving experience, I became my parent’s chauffeur, mover, billpayer, walking companion, and investment manager. Try to match caregiving tasks with each person’s talents, abilities, and personal likes and/or dislikes. Ask your siblings what they would like to do.

Resolution #4 - Accept disproportionate care.

No matter how you split up caregiving responsibilities, you may see one sibling doing more than others. This may be a personal preference, as one sibling may want to be more involved. This may be due to geographical location. A sibling living closer to a parent may be more able to provide more care. One sibling may also have more time than others to deal with matters that arise. My older sister, as a mother herself, had to try and balance our parent’s needs with her own children’s needs. Divide caregiving work proportionately to these factors.

Resolution #5 - Take respite.

No matter what level of caregiving each sibling accepts, respite (personal care) is essential to preventing caregiver burnout. Allow each sibling some time away from their caregiving work to be with their family, enjoy a hobby or favourite activity, explore outside interests, and/or simply rest. Respite is not just taking one day off for yourself, it is a mindset that family caregivers must adopt and follow regularly. Caregiving can be emotionally, mentally, and physically tiring work and family caregivers need to remember themselves within the equation.

How to Come to Agreements about Conflicts Around Care

Resolution #6 - Hold regular family meetings.

Getting together provides an opportunity for family members to clear the air. If siblings live far apart, schedule conference calls or “cc” e-mails to all your siblings. Respect what each sibling shares and let them speak without interruption. Listeners can paraphrase for understanding and/or ask questions later. Encourage each sibling to host family meetings in his/her home to heighten personal comfort during the proceedings.

Resolution #7 - Be Honest.

Conflicts around caring can occur from a lack of understanding and/or open communication. A strong and silent approach to caregiving can be misunderstood. Brothers and sisters could easily assume that you have everything under control but you are struggling (emotionally, physically, mentally, and/or financially). If you need something, speak up!

Resolution #8 - Involve a mediator.

Should familial arguments become more heated, a mediator may be able to help. This doesn’t have to be a professional therapist/counselor; he/she can be someone with an open mind, a calm manner, and no direct connection with your aging loved one.

What to do when Siblings Don’t Help with Caring for Parents

Resolution #9 - Understand personal limitations.

You can’t stick a square peg into a round hole. A sibling may not want to help or may choose to help at a more limited level. That sibling may live at a greater distance from aging parents, thus making travel more expensive and time-consuming. A sibling may also voluntarily choose not to become involved. A good friend of mine preferred not to visit his aging grandmother as her physical and mental decline due to Alzheimer’s disease was too difficult to face.

Resolution #10 - Employ Outside Help.

As a family caregiver, you may be expecting too much of yourself and/or your siblings. Admitting that you may need further help is not a weakness. Outside caregiving help can be provided at various levels. My sisters and I hired a companion caregiver for our Dad to take him for walks when we were unavailable. Caregivers can assist with bathing, toileting, light housekeeping, meals, and exercise—but a home health professional might be needed if your parent requires wound care or more specialized medical attention.

Whether you and your siblings are expecting to care for aging parents or already doing so, carefully consider who you are working with, what they can bring to the table, and the impact on your relationships with these individuals.

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