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Family Dynamics

Caregiving for Parents Takes a Family

10 things adult siblings can do to make things better when caring for parents.

Key points

  • The demands of caregiving are intense and often magnified by complicated family dynamics.
  • Adults who are only children face unique struggles when caring for ill and elderly parents.
  • Adults with siblings face constraints when caring for parents while having to negotiate with siblings.
  • There are things that adults with siblings can do to minimize conflict and create ease.

Caregiving for ill or elderly parents presents a host of challenges for adult children. There are challenges for only children, as well as those with siblings. Some challenges are further magnified by whether or not the other parent is still alive, has died, has remarried, or is also in their own compromised health situation.

In my book, Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption, I detail the complexities of caring for an ill and elderly parent as an only child. There were many times I wished I had a sibling or siblings with whom to share the anguish and the relentless calls from the hospital and nursing homes, and yet friends who have tense relationships or full on estrangement from siblings continually reminded me that the presence of a sibling or siblings would not necessarily lighten the load or simplify things.

Gert Stockmans/ Unsplash
Gert Stockmans/ Unsplash

Adult children with siblings may have the benefit, and also sometimes the burden, of sharing some of the responsibilities, including physical, emotional, and financial ones. But depending on the nature of the sibling dynamics, this can be difficult. There are things that adult siblings can do to make things a bit smoother and simpler and that is the focus of this article.

1) Gather as much information as possible from the parent so as to know what you’re dealing with. Find out your parent’s preferences and wishes on a variety of fronts.

2) Communicate clearly and directly with siblings about matters affecting the parent.

3) Be honest and forthright about limitations and constraints, both in terms of schedules, travel, time, and money. For example, if siblings offer to split the cost of something for a parent and the money is sent to one person, the person collecting it needs to be open and forthcoming about when the item will be purchased, and how things are going along in the process so that the other siblings don’t feel deceived or taken advantage of. If there is any waiting time for an item, it’s best for the person collecting the money to save the money in a separate account for the parent, so that they are not tempted to handle their own financial situation with their siblings’ money.

4) Be mindful of how gendered caregiving often is, with so much responsibility falling on daughters, as well as the female partners of the sons.

5) If you are the one living further away from your siblings who live closer to your ailing parent, ask how you can be most helpful from afar. Perhaps this can be done with planned visits to give a sibling a breather or by arranging for meals to be sent on occasions. And the simple act of making yourself available for calls and texts is meaningful and helpful as well.

6) Remember that it’s normal for the sibling who is geographically farther away to feel guilty or left out.

7) Remember that it’s normal for the sibling who lives nearby the parent or who resides with the parent to sometimes feel put upon as well as envious of siblings who can get away from it all.

8) Try to cultivate compassion for the experience your sibling has. For example, perhaps you see your parent multiple times a week and your sibling flies in and out of the state once or twice a year for visits. It’s easy to feel a bit jealous of how they seem freer. But try to remember the different dilemma under which they operate, which is that most of us who have been involved in long distance caregiving have at one point or another longed to be able to get to visit more readily and easily and are eager to see our parent, however changed or frail. Yet, when we finally get there, we are often stunned and heartbroken by what appears to be rapid decline, feel guilty for the time we missed and the life we were having wherever we live, and suddenly and simultaneously cannot wait to leave. But then, when the day comes that we are scheduled to depart, we don’t want to go and again feel guilty about leaving behind people we love.

9) Try to be sensitive to both the relationship your sibling had with your parent when you were growing up and currently. Perhaps you were the one who was always emotionally closer to your parent and your sibling felt overlooked as a child. Perhaps you were very close with your parent and sibling growing up but over time have felt much less close to both of them while they have gotten closer with each other. Remember that relationships are fluid and change.

10) Remember to have compassion for yourself. Caregiving is hard. Important and difficult medical needs are offloaded to family caregivers who are often saddled with other significant responsibilities of their own, including work, marriage, and child-rearing. If you are lucky and have a good rapport with your sibling or siblings, sharing the load may be marked with gratitude, warmth, humor, shared anticipatory grief, and an assumption that everyone is just doing their best in a difficult situation. But, if your sibling relationship is contentious, bitter, caustic, abusive, or completely disconnected such that you don’t even speak, try to accept the limitations of what they are and find comfort in friends who understand both your attachment to care and your need to let go.

More from Deborah J. Cohan Ph.D.
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