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Caregiving with Siblings (1st blog of a two-part series): Reducing Sibling Tensions in Family Caregiving

Christine, age 56, is at her wit’s end with her siblings. Her brother has just told her that he cannot visit their mother in Ohio this week. Her sister, despite living in the same town as their mother, has not visited in over a month and is notably absent from caregiving responsibilities. Christine feels a wide range of emotions that are hard to describe. She is disappointed in her siblings and feels like the burden of caring for their mother is squarely on her shoulders. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to balance parenting and work in addition to care for their aging mother. She wants to avoid any negative or counterproductive behavior that might further cause pain in her family. For many family caregivers, Christine’s scenario rings painfully true to their own reality. According to a 2009 study conducted by AARP, nearly 30% of the U.S. population is providing care to a disabled, ill, or aging family member. While adult siblings may seem like a natural care team for aging parents, frustrations and family tension often contribute additional stress to family caregiving dynamics.

Finding effective ways to alleviate and/or avoid family conflict is important – below are three guiding principles that you may find effective for your family:

1. Carefully consider (or reconsider) caregiving responsibilities as a family Sometimes the primary caregiver role seems to automatically default to one of the adult children, perhaps the sibling who lives nearby, the person who does not work, or the individual who has the closest relationship to the parent. However, families should have conversations about what works best for all instead of assuming who will fulfill what caregiving duty. These conversations are also important so that caregiving responsibilities aren’t decided based on stereotypical thinking. For instance, it’s common for the adult son to handle the finances while the adult daughter is tasked with caring for the emotional and physical needs of their parents.  This is when no one has ever sat down to expressly discuss the many roles needed in family caregiving and whether or not the best person for the job is assigned to each role. Because of these dynamics, we have found that families often need to re-examine and clarify caregiving responsibilities. In particular, families should consider some important questions. Who, for instance, is the primary caregiver and what is he or she expected to do? What are the supporting roles? Will there be financial compensation for the primary caregiver? How will respite be provided for every caregiver – primary, secondary and so forth?

2. Recognize family dynamics in relation to family history – and discuss how they may change for caregiving roles Regardless of the life you lead today, many siblings fall back into the family roles they played growing up. In our example above, Christine may find herself taking the lead on planning holiday dinners while her brother and sister simply show up since she was the “responsible one” during their teenage years. However, this does not mean that her brother “the athlete” or sister “the social butterfly” should be placed into those same roles in the caregiving scenario. When parents begin to require long-term care, sit down together and talk about what each sibling is capable of doing today. Communicate in the present tense. Aim to recognize and avoid falling back into familial roles or stereotypes for each other that you held growing up.

3. Accept that siblings might have different ideas about the care parents need The mere idea that aging parents may require care sends many people into a panic and understandably so. Part of the process of family caregiving is admitting that mom and dad are aging and are no longer capable of taking care of themselves entirely on their own.  However, while one sister may think that parents need to be placed in an assisted living facility, another brother could be in denial that they need any help at all. In order to effectively provide care with your siblings, it is imperative to have a realistic understanding of the care they want and need. Sit down or organize a conference call with your siblings and discuss medical conditions, disabilities or ailments that are leading to the need for care.  Use factual information on your parents’ health conditions, finances and wishes. In this way, together you can make the best decisions, working as a team, to ensure your parents are cared for well. Professional assessments from doctors or geriatric care managers may help facilitate these types of discussions. Although sometimes frustrating or tiring, providing care for aging parents while working with your siblings can be a fulfilling experience when you commit to working together and not against one another. Advice from other caregivers in similar situation may also be beneficial.

For more detailed information on how to work successfully with your siblings to care for aging parents, read FCA’s factsheet, Caregiving with Your Siblings, which includes additional references to several helpful writings on this topic by author, Francine Russo.

Please leave a comment and let us know what you have done to improve communication and relationships amongst your siblings in an effort to better the care you provide to your aging parents.  Additionally, see Part 2 of our series on sibling tensions in caregiving, “How to Gain Support from Siblings.”