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Care@Work / Care@Work Blog / August “Senior Sense”: Siblings and Caregiving: More Heated Than a Summer Hot Spell

August “Senior Sense”: Siblings and Caregiving: More Heated Than a Summer Hot Spell

POSTED BY
Liz O'Donnell on July 21, 2020 03:52 PM

I am the youngest of three daughters, which for me meant I was not supposed to be the primary caregiver for my parents. That role, I always thought, should fall to the oldest. When my parents were sick, I spent lots of time and energy feeling resentful that I was the one who my parents called for help and the doctor called for consultations. “Why me?” was one of my most used lines at the time. I knew the resentment was bad for my own health and so I searched for a way to release it.

Sibling relationships can be challenging at any time, but sibling relationships when a parent or parents need care, can be downright fraught. Your brothers and sisters might treat you like our six-year old self, triggering old resentments or outdated family dynamics. One family member may try to take over all decision-making or hoard pertinent information about your parents’ well-being. Or maybe everybody seemingly disappears, leaving you to handle all of the decision-making and care work. And suddenly, you start feeling bitter and burnt out.

The solution for me was actually quite simple once I figured it out. I decided one day that rather than asking myself, “Why me?” I would ask, “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I be the one to care for my parents. After all, I had the ability, compassion and skills to assist them. And I found that when I reframed the question, I stopped feeling like a victim and started feeling more in control of the situation. But while the solution was simple, practicing it, was a little more challenging.

On good days, when work, family and care obligations all seemed to fit into my schedule and there were no crises to handle, my mind shift did the trick. But on those challenging days when nothing seemed to go well – my mother was slow getting ready for her doctor’s appointment, or my kids were running behind and I was in the school parking lot waiting for them, or my boss called a meeting for 5 p.m., I found my thoughts going back to, “Why me?” and “Where the heck are my sisters?” For those more challenging days, I employed a few more strategies to manage my caregiving responsibilities, and, keep my family relationships intact.

Here are 4 strategies for working with siblings during caregiving:

  1. Ask, but don’t hesitate to act. I never stopped asking my sisters to help out or provide input. And truth is, they were always willing to step up. But they didn’t or couldn’t always meet my schedule and sometimes, I didn’t agree with the input they provided, and so I adopted a “high input, low democracy” approach to decision-making. I would always ask for input and I would always give my sisters the opportunity to be involved in our parents’ care. I valued their opinions and always considered them. But ultimately, as the primary caregiver, I would make my best decision and take what I felt was the best action at the time even if they didn’t agree with me. If your parents put their trust in you to be their primary caregiver, step up to the role and don’t apologize for it.
  2. Avoid “magical thinking.” Sometimes, siblings just aren’t willing to help out or weigh in on important issues. If that’s the case, do your best to accept it. Caregiving is no time for magical thinking- hoping and wishing that your family will behave differently. You don’t have time for that. If you and your sister have never seen eye to eye, this is not the time to expect you will start. If your brother just won’t visit your parents, stop spending energy trying to convince him too. One of my sisters was always willing to help, but her pace of work was much slower than mine. Rather than fret over when she would complete a task, or wish that she worked faster, I only gave her care-related assignments that were not urgent.
  3. Accept good enough. Maybe your challenge is that you are not the adult child in charge of your parents’ care and you don’t like how your sibling in charge is managing. If that’s the case, remember there is no one right way to do things. This is a strategy I used whenever I did delegate tasks. You cannot expect that your sibling will handle things the same way you might. That’s okay. As long as your parents’ needs are being met – and no one is being hurt, or abused, then lower your standards and let your siblings handle things in their way. Seek ways to support them, rather than critique them.
  4. Seek professional help. What if you try these strategies and the situation is still tense? Sometimes family dynamics are toxic or perhaps there are inheritance issues complicating things. Families are complex. If that’s the case, know that there are professionals who can help. Family mediators, geriatric care managers and elder law attorneys are all skilled in working with dynamic family situations. If you can’t go it alone, don’t.

Ultimately, when it comes to managing siblings and caregiving, all you can do is act in the best interest of the person you are caring for and assume your family members are trying to do the same.

For caregiving support, information and resources contact a Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. We are master’s-level social workers specializing in adult and senior care. Call us today at (855) 781-1303 x3 or email questions to careplanning@care.com

Liz O'Donnell

Liz is the founder of Working Daughter, a thriving community for women balancing eldercare, career, and more. A former family caregiver, she is a recognized expert on working while caregiving and has written on the topic for The Atlantic, Forbes, TIME, WBUR and PBS’ Next Avenue. Her book, Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning A Living, will be published in August 2019.