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Resolving Sibling Disagreements over Parents’ Care

Taking care of an aging parent alone is not an easy task for an adult child. With the amount of medical, financial and emotionally sensitive decisions that need to be made, it can be a complicated process. Having adult siblings around to help can make the situation even more complex. Even though they can be very helpful and offer much needed support, the added family dynamics can cause stress and the caregiving process will often cause riffs between siblings. Facing the reality that an aging parent needs care can be an emotionally overwhelming process, and how each sibling’s unique personality deals with that often adds stress to the situation.

Common Stressors Among Siblings

Old roles and rivalries among siblings can resurface when dealing with the care of an aging parent. Each sibling has a different relationship in the family and with the parents, and this often affects what role they think they should have in caregiving. In many cases, the eldest sibling feels the caregiving responsibility falls on them. Sometimes the child who sees themselves as the “good” child or the most loved will take the responsibility. Siblings who feel like a disappointment to their parents may feel less inclined to take on caregiving responsibilities. The stress of caregiving can also bring back or enhance sibling rivalries and feuds.

Another stressor is dividing care duties and sharing responsibilities. Author Francine Russo’s research on siblings and caregiving found that in 90 percent of families, one sibling carries most or all of the caregiving burden. This is an especially frequent problem in situations where one sibling lives with the parent, or at least nearer than the other siblings. This problem can also relate to the different roles and relationships each sibling has previously had in the family.

Another stressor that can be a danger to sibling relationships is money, specifically how much money should be spent on aging parent’s care. Brette Sember, author of The Complete Legal Guide to Senior Care, said most of these issues arise from not understanding the parent’s care needs. With many care options available – in-home caregivers, assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities, moving in with family, etc. – siblings may disagree over what is the best and most cost-efficient option for the parent. Some may disagree over whether medical intervention is even needed. Many of these disagreements can be fueled by ongoing resentments of income disparities.

“Money is a big, big issue, particularly when there may be enough left for inheritance after the parent passes,” Sember said. “All the sibling resentment you dealt with as a kid comes roaring back at this time. This is the time when power struggles in families come to the forefront.”

Communication is Key

Eliminating the previously mentioned stressors will make the caregiving process much better, but it is often easier said than done. The most helpful tool is open and honest communication between siblings and parents. The best way to accomplish this is to have a meeting in person or even over the phone where all the issues and options are discussed. Siblings should be willing to listen to each other and consider each other’s suggestions.

It is good for siblings to figure out their caregiving roles, but the roles should not be based on assumptions. Siblings should determine what is expected from each other. Even if one sibling doesn’t want help with caring for a parent, she may just want the acknowledgment and recognition for all she is doing. Each sibling has a different personality and set of abilities – these should be accepted and are best utilized when they are properly focused toward how they can help. It is best to keep what one “should” be or do out of the conversation.

When it comes to sharing the responsibilities of caregiving, there’s no one solution that works for everyone. Every family is different, so every family should work together to find the best arrangement for them. One sibling may handle financial or legal matters, while another handles medical issues, and another helps the parent maintain the house. If one sibling lives with or near the parent and provides most of the hands-on caregiving, then other siblings could financially compensate to do their part, or offer to spend their vacation time caring for the parent to give the other sibling a break. Siblings should be specific about what tasks they need help with. Sember said that “shared responsibility” means different things to different families. “Acknowledge that everyone has different abilities, resources, and availability,” she said. “Give everyone some kind of responsibility, even if it means writing a check or calling mom once a day to be her sounding board.”

Because financial issues can be one of the biggest sources of conflict, siblings should be straightforward in their conversations about funding their parent’s care. In many situations, especially those where sibling conflicts are still not being resolved, seeking professional advice can bring a helpful perspective to the table. Russo agrees, saying an outside observer helps siblings take an objective view of the situation. “An outside social worker or a mediator can say ‘Here’s what your parent needs. Here’s what’s available. Now what are you each willing to contribute?” Russo said. Companies like Amada Senior Care have advisors that help families determine what type of care is best for the aging parent, and are experts on the many options for funding senior care.

It’s important to remember that the healthiest and least conflicted families are ones in which the parent’s wishes are known. If the parent completes an Advance Health Care Directive, the adult children will know the parent’s end-of-life care wishes, which can avoid a lot of unwanted stress and decision making in an emotional time. When it comes to caregiving for an aging parent, siblings should focus on the facts and have a clear understanding of what the parent’s needs are. With open and honest communication, siblings can eliminate stress and provide better help for each other and for their aging parents.

Written by Amada contributor Taylor French.


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