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Caregiving and sibling relationships: challenges and opportunities

Your mother has been diagnosed with dementia and it is clear that she can no longer live alone. You feel that an assisted living facility is the best care option, but your brother disagrees. Every conversation you have with him seems to lead to confrontation and hurt feelings….

Providing care for an aging or ill parent can bring out the best and the worst in sibling relationships. Ideally, the experience of caregiving is a time for siblings to come together and provide mutual support to one another. However, as a stressful transition, the pressure can also lead to strained connections and painful conflict.

One major source of sibling friction is the legacy of family dynamics. Invariably, the demands of caregiving bring out old patterns and unresolved tensions. Past wounds are reopened and childhood rivalries reemerge. It is not unusual for adult children to find themselves replaying their historical roles in the family, recreating old dynamics of competition and resentment as they vie for mom’s attention and affection.

Another conflict can arise when one sibling is in denial over a parent’s condition. Adult children who seem unable to accept the reality of a parent’s illness and refuse involvement may be protecting themselves from facing a parent’s eventual death and their own loss. More active siblings may react with bitterness and anger.

Most often though, discord surfaces from the unequal division of caregiving duties. Generally, one sibling takes on the primary role of caring for a loved one. This may be because he or she lives closest to a parent, is perceived as having less work or fewer family obligations, or is considered the “favorite” child. Regardless of the reasons, this situation can lead the overburdened caregiver to feel frustrated and resentful and other siblings to feel uninformed and left out.

Resolving these conflicts can be challenging. But ignoring the difficulties in a caregiving situation can create greater challenges. Ultimately, strained family relationships can impede a family’s capacity to provide the greatest quality of care to a parent. How can families come together in caregiving? Here are some suggestions:

  • Express your feelings honestly and directly. Let your siblings know their help is both wanted and needed.
  • Keep family members informed regarding a parent’s condition.
  • Be realistic in your expectations. Allow siblings to help in ways they are able and divide tasks according to individual abilities, current life pressures and personal freedoms. Assistance with errands, finances, legal work or other indirect care may be the best option for some family members.
  • Express appreciation to your family for help they are able to provide.
  • Accept siblings for who they are and expect differences of opinion.
  • Try to respect other’s perceptions and find opportunities to compromise.
  • If communication is particularly contentious, arrange a family meeting that includes an outside facilitator, such as your FCA Family Consultant, social worker, counselor, religious leader or friend. A trusted outside party can ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.
  • If siblings are unable to help with care, seek other assistance to provide a respite for yourself. Call your local Caregiver Resource Center, Area Agency on Aging, Senior Center or other community resource to locate help.

Try to forgive family members who continue to refuse to get involved in a loved one’s care. The only thing we have control over in a situation is our reaction. Attempt to work through your negative emotions to take care of yourself and move forward. For more information, call FCA at (800) 445-8106.