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Caregiving with Your Siblings During the Holidays

Guest Blogger:  Francine Russo, speaker and authorTHEY’RE YOUR PARENTS, TOO! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy” [Illustration by Andrea Orvik]   Family Caregiver Alliance “I’m really worried about the holidays,” Leslie told me. I’ve got everything under control with my Mom and Dad. Then my sisters and their families come. I tell them that Mom and Dad tire easily and to make sure the grandkids don’t exhaust them. But they don’t listen to me. Mom and Dad can’t say no, everything gets crazy, and I’m the one who has to deal with the resulting mess.” In case you haven’t guessed, Leslie’s the caregiver for her mom and dad. Her folks, now in their 80’s are still in their own house, but Mom’s got diabetes, hypertension and arthritis and Dad’s slowing down physically and seems to be even more confused and forgetful lately. Leslie’s two sisters, who live out of state, visit once or twice a year. Mostly they don’t acknowledge their parents’ aging, or, if they do, Leslie says, they blame it on her. “They told me I should make sure Mom and Dad get more exercise and eat more blueberries and fish to boost dad’s memory. I can’t make them do that if they don’t want to! Sound familiar? Hers is a typical caregiver lament around this time of year. If your situation is like hers, is there any way to make things better? Well, …maybe. At least a little. All your siblings—and in-laws and grandkids—are going to have different perceptions, needs and expectations. Your older sister will want to spend as much time with Mom and Dad as possible or have them play with the grandkids as much as they can. And, yes, she will try to take charge just like she did when you were kids. Your younger sister will do whatever it takes to keep the peace. And your parents will brighten up at the sight of everyone, announce they’re couldn’t be feeing better, and make you sound like a liar or a drama queen. If you are like many caregivers, you will want to try to maintain Mom and Dad’s routines, and keep control of all the things that need doing. You will attempt to protect your parents from exhaustion while finding yourself “educating” your sisters and their family that your parents aren’t up to doing all of the activities that they once did. But if you fight to keep things “normal,” you’re likely to exhaust yourself fighting reality: holidays are not normal. Now, you may be right about everything. Yes, Mom and Dad may get overtired and feel a little worse after everyone leaves. And, yes, you will be left to deal with the results. But you can feel less stressed if you have a sense of perspective about what’s really at stake. Will your parents face any real danger from the holiday festivities? If they’re like most people, the answer is probably not. If you take this as your starting point, you may be able to make the holiday less difficult and more enjoyable.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Accept the reality that holidays are exceptions to routines and don’t fight hard to keep them “normal.” That can save you from feeling frustrated and resentful.
  • Try to delegate some of the things that will need doing by talking to your siblings ahead of time; You can explain that you will be thrilled to see them but also overwhelmed. Try to get them to commit to particular tasks like keeping your parents house picked-up when visiting, taking full responsibility for monitoring their young children, and, if it makes sense for your family, honoring an early evening quiet time so that you and your parents can get a good nights sleep or at least some private time for yourselves.
  •  If you’re hosting, now is the perfect time to change some of the “but we’ve always done it this way” meal traditions. Consider making life a little easier for yourself, especially if others won’t help. This might mean eating out rather than in, or bringing in prepared food and serving it buffet style on paper plates. Yes, even though it’s the holidays!
  •  If your siblings don’t understand your parents’ condition, try to prepare them by composing and sending a letter – or asking a nurse, social worker or a respected family friend to do so- prior to their visit. Describe your parents current typical day and their current health concerns. Of course, even if you can tell your family yourself in great detail, everyone will be seeing your folks through their own fears and wishes—based on their own relationship with each parent. And they will hear anything you tell them through the whole history of your relationship with them.
  •  Parents may have long provided extra emotional support for a troubled sibling or ‘kept the peace” among feuding siblings. The dynamics of the family will definitely change once your parents are no longer interested or able to maintain those roles. Encourage family to visit even though the declining effects of your parents chronic health conditions or increasing frailty may make a sibling feel vulnerable. But remember, it’s not your job as the caregiver to take over your parents former role as peacekeeper. Set your limits and be clear about them with others.
  •  If a relative notices that Mom walks more slowly or Dad seems a little “out of it” and they blame it on you, try, try not to get defensive and attack with the guilts: (Well, if you came around a little more… or You do nothing so don’t you dare criticize me) They may defend themselves from feeling guilty by getting angry with you. Say as calmly as you can: I’ve been trying to tell you how their medical issues are affecting them, but I know it’s hard to understand when you don’t see them first hand. Can I arrange a phone consultation with their doctor so you can hear what’s going on and ask her your questions? Remember, the doctor will need your parent’s permission before talking about any of your parent’s health care concerns with family.
  •  Consider inviting an objective third party— social worker knowledgeable about family caregiving or a geriatric care manager—to convene a family meeting for one of the days before or after the holiday. This can occur by phone or in-person although in-person is best. This professional can help get family members on the same page, defuse family tensions and even help distribute caregiving tasks. Including your parents, if they are willing and able, empowers them to feel more in-control of their environment and helps everyone hear preferences and wishes about long-term care needs directly from the source.
  •  If you and your family see the need for someone else to coordinate your parents care—for example maybe you need to return to work – arrange to meet with a geriatric care manager (GCM). These professionals will charge a fee to come to the house, assess your parents’ condition, needs and options going forward. While writing this blog I wondered whether GCMs work during the holidays. I called one excellent one I know to ask. “Are you kidding?” she said. “Holidays are our busiest times of the year!”
  •  Having fun when siblings visit is important. Accept invitations to go play even if it doesn’t work for your parents to join you. Going skiing for the day with your little sister or allowing your siblings to stay with your parents while you enjoy a guilt-free massage and lunch with a friend can do you a world of good. Everything may not go perfectly while you are away but it probably will be good enough. Say “yes” to opportunities that both feed your soul while giving your siblings the opportunity to help while they are in town.

Family get-togethers can be fabulous or fearful or some combination of the two. However large they loom, they also present an opportunity to get everyone on the same page—or at least, on the same chapter—and help ease the way for the duration of the caregiving passage ahead. Try to let go a little and enjoy a little! The Family Caregiver Alliance fact sheets on Caregiving with your Siblings, Holding a Family Meeting, and Taking Care of You: Self Care for Family Caregivers offer more tips and suggestion on this topic. Can you provide our readers with an experience of yours, navigating the holidays with siblings while caregiving?