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Caregiving with Siblings

If your parents need help to maintain independence, it can be both a source of stress relief and a stressor to have siblings. The dynamics in many families aren’t simple, and nothing brings disparities to the surface like managing care for your parents. In this article, we’ll explore how to identify the family dynamics that can impact caregiving and how to navigate emotions to increase your chances of getting help.

Why Sibling Relationships Often Struggle Through Caregiving: Family Dynamics

Watching our parents age, struggle through chronic and/or debilitating illnesses, and die is one of the hardest chapters of the human experience. We will all handle it differently.

Some of us have healthier relationships with our upbringing than others. This includes both our relationships with our parents as well as the relationship between us and our siblings. There are many personal, emotional, financial, and relational issues that are brought to light - differences in family dynamics, opinions over how care should be handled and by whom, etc.

Work Together to Determine Caregiving Roles

What often happens is that the sibling who lives nearest to the parents (or has the closest relationship) ends up initially taking on small tasks around the house to help out. As the needs grow, so do their responsibilities, but there’s no formal discussion or agreement over who should be the primary caregiver.

As is often the case, families will make assumptions - either based on gender roles (brothers will handle the bills and sisters will handle the physical care and emotions) or circumstance (the unemployed sibling should provide the majority of the care), which may feel simple, but it is not the best approach.

When you don’t actively come to an agreement together about what roles and responsibilities each should have, the situation can build resentment. The sibling who is doing the most may feel like his/her siblings are unwilling to help or are all too happy to leave it all on their shoulders.

To avoid this, it’s important to determine (or reorganize) roles and responsibilities actively together; you need to re-examine all these assumptions as a family. The best way to do this is to call family meetings as early and as often as possible. Family meetings can provide a place to discuss the parent's needs and to ask what each person can contribute in time or money. If needed, a trusted person outside the family can facilitate.

Accept and Understand Differences

It will take some of us more time than others to understand and accept the situation for what it is. Siblings may disagree on the need for care (one may not accept the reality or gravity of this situation, for example), the best path for care, or their role in all of it. Here are some ways to get on the same page:

  • If there's no emergency, allow some time to get everyone on the same page. It's natural for siblings to take in the situation at different times and in different ways. This can happen regardless of whether they're far away or close.

  • Get one (or multiple) Professional Opinion(s). Get a professional assessment of your parent's condition by a doctor, social worker, or geriatric care manager and send the report to all your siblings. Try using email, online care sharing tools, and/or in-person family meetings to help keep everyone abreast of care issues and information.

  • Communicate and Share Information. Keep in mind that parents often tell their children different things about how they're doing. This is a good reason to keep communication lines open with each other and to try to pool your information about your parent's health.

Tips for Getting More Support from Siblings

  1. Try to accept both your siblings and your parents as they really are, not who you wish they were. Families are complicated - there are no "shoulds" about how people feel. Someone is not “bad” or “wrong” if they disagree with you. Approach care with this mindset to avoid a lot of conflicts.

  2. Do not over-simplify or make assumptions. It's easy to assume that you are completely right and your siblings are all wrong—or lazy, irresponsible, uncaring, etc. but this is, more often than not, not true. Each person has a different relationship with your parent, and each person's outlook is bound to be different.

  3. Ask yourself what you really want from your siblings. It’s often the case that you may think you want help, but still, actively resist it. Take time to reflect and think about what you really hope to accomplish by talking to your siblings. Do you want help, and if so, in what form? Do you want them to do certain tasks regularly? Do you want them to give you time off occasionally? Or do you feel you have everything under control, but you'd like them to contribute money for services or respite? Or, do you want to handle the care, but just want their emotional support?

  4. Ask for help clearly, or ask them to check in with you regularly. When you need help, it’s best to ask for it in a clear and direct way. “Can you stay with mom on Tuesdays?” is a lot more effective than assuming that you “shouldn’t have to ask.” If you don’t ask, your siblings may assume that you have everything covered and are not asking out of respect for you and all that you’re doing. If you don’t want help, ask them to check in with you in a capacity that suits you, whether on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. When you need help, you’ll then have an opportunity to ask for it.

  5. Watch how you ask for help. If you have feelings of anger or frustration, you may unintentionally show that in your tone of voice. Avoid making your siblings feel accused or guilty, even if you believe that would be an appropriate response. Guilt makes people uncomfortable and defensive - they might get angry, minimize or criticize what you are doing, or avoid you completely - which is counterproductive to the end goal of getting help.

  6. Get help from a professional outside the family. Even the healthiest families can sometimes use the help of an objective professional. People like family therapists, social workers, geriatric care managers, physicians, or clergy can help siblings establish what is real about a parent's health and needs in order to help distribute responsibilities more equitably. In family meetings, they can help you stay focused on the topic at hand and help you avoid bringing up old arguments.

  7. Don’t let legal or inheritance disputes tear your family apart. Whatever their reasons, remember that it was your parents, not your siblings, who decided this. Think hard before you take your anger or disappointment out on your siblings. They are what remains of your original family, and for most people, this relationship becomes more important after parents die.

Closing Thoughts

Dealing with your siblings about caring for your parents can be difficult, complex, and emotional. It's normal to feel a wide range of emotions. Old patterns (sibling hierarchy - eldest to youngest, for example) may cloud your judgment for handling the situation at hand.

It is important to understand your own emotions at this challenging time and to try to have sympathy for your siblings' feelings as well - even if you disagree. You don't have to excuse negative behavior, but try to imagine the fear, pain, or need that is causing your siblings to react as they do. That kind of understanding can defuse a lot of family conflict.

Remember that you cannot handle caregiving alone. Asking for or accepting offered help may feel strange, but it is one of the best ways to ensure your emotional wellbeing and reduce frustration.

For further reading and resources, we invite you to check out our library of information for family caregivers by clicking here. You are also welcome to give us a call at 800-543-8312 to find out more about how we can support you in your caregiving journey.


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