siblings caring for a parent


Editor’s Note: Today is National Siblings Day so this article by Iris is particularly relevant!

Thanks to better medications and healthcare we are living longer. That does not ensure a quality of life to match our extended years. Many times the role of caregiver for an aging parent falls on the shoulders of adult children. The process of determining which siblings will provide care to their aging parents, who will be administering the care, and how that will play out is complicated at best. It becomes even more challenging when the complexities of the relationships of the siblings to each other and to their parents are added to the mix.


Aging parents that require this role reversal can bring back childhood animosities and conflicts that were never resolved or confronted. Anxiety, grief, and uncertainty about the future can cause emotions to come out in unwanted ways at times you did not plan or anticipate. Some siblings may want to obtain attention or expressions of love they had sought from childhood. It is important to consider these dynamics as you and your siblings step into this new caregiver role.


One of the most common problems that occur is that one or two siblings seem to take on the biggest share of caregiving responsibilities creating animosity and anger towards the siblings who are less involved or choose not to participate. This creates divisiveness, anger, and hurt feelings.


Geographic proximity is also a huge factor in terms of the presence of a caregiver in an aging parent’s life. Expectations that the sibling living closest to mom or dad should pick up the lion’s share of the caregiver role are common regardless of the life circumstances of that sibling. Also adult children who live farther away and have less contact with their parents may not be aware of   their functionality on a day to day basis causing unrealistic expectations regarding care needs.


Gender also comes into play when examining who becomes a caregiver. Women overwhelmingly take on the role of caregiver. The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that “an estimated 66% of caregivers are female.” There are often expectations that sisters, especially older sisters, should assume the role.


Given these scenarios there are things that can be done among siblings to offset some of these challenges. Putting these guidelines in place can counteract some of the problems and conflicts that can emerge when there is disharmony among siblings regarding caregiving roles.


  • Have Initial Informational Meeting-This can be done in person or on the phone or Skype. All siblings should try to participate. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the status of your parents. What medical problems do they have? What does the doctor say about the prognosis and the progression of the illness? What is their functional abilities physically, mentally, and emotionally? What messages have been given from the parents in terms of what help if any they require and have they designated who they want to offer the help? How realistic are your parents about their abilities and limitations? This purpose of this meeting is to try to get everyone on the same page in terms of understanding the status of your parents and creating realistic expectations regarding what their ongoing and future care needs will be.


  • Define Roles and Expectations-People who assume the role of caregiver must take on a multitude of roles. They do physical care, financial issues, legal questions, billing, home management, getting the right level of care, communication with healthcare professionals, emotional support and more. Geographic proximity is not a requirement for many of these categories. Have a discussion with siblings about who has what skill set and how they contribute to the caregiving team. My sister lived in England when my father became ill. She offered financial support since she could not be physically close to help. Someone with legal expertise or knowledge of a legal expert can ensure the proper healthcare directives are in place. Being a person who is available to offer emotional support to the primary caregiver can be invaluable too.


  • Communication is Key-Agree to revisit the caregiver plan you have put in place in a specific time frame. It is important that your siblings know that they will have a chance to share things that are working and problems that they perceive have arisen. Make a plan about how frequently you all will talk, update, email, Skype, or meet to discuss the ongoing status of your parent’s condition. Be flexible about changing the frequency and nature of care as their situation changes over time.


  • Be Patient and Respectful of Each Other-Remember even though you are siblings you see the world through a different lens. Your opinions will differ about what is needed and how things will be done. Be patient with your siblings and listen to their point of view. The realm of caregiving is not black and white. There is not one way to do something. Flexibility is paramount in a sibling caregiver team. Circumstances will change and you need to react in ways that will support each other.


  • Give each other permission to ask for help- One of the biggest mistakes caregivers make is getting burnt out because they wait to long to ask for help. When my father was ill I asked my brother and sister to each come in for a week to give me some respite time so I could recharge and regroup. When roles are assigned and you begin to do the day to day associated tasks you may feel overwhelmed or unable to do a good job. If you agree to handle medical bills and you don’t understand them find a professional to help you or ask a knowledgeable person questions to get the information you need to complete your tasks.


Nothing about caregiving is simple or easy. But the rewards can be great. Repairing a broken relationship can be a byproduct of caregiving. A greater closeness and intimacy can occur between the caregivers and the person being cared for. You can’t ask your siblings or parents to feel exactly the way you do about everything that will occur. Be thoughtful about the way you ask for help and offer support when your siblings make an effort even if it not totally successful. If conflict remains or grows you always have the option of calling in a geriatric care manager. This person can act as a mediator and will give a realistic assessment of the help needed and how and when to find it. Go to Aging Life Care  to find a geriatric care manager in your area.



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