November 8, 2011
By Leah Eskenazi, MSW, Director of Operations and Planning at Family Caregiver Alliance
Are you looking forward to getting together with your parents and siblings for Thanksgiving? Maybe not. Sibling relationships and parent–child communication can be complicated. Should one or both of your parents also suffer from a progressive chronic illness, then the holiday chit chat with your siblings will most likely be about your parent’s needs and how to navigate for their care and well-being.
According to Francine Russo, author of, “Their Your Parents Too: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy”(Bantam, 2010), whenever we get together with family, most of us tend to slip into our old roles, even though we behave differently when we are with other people. But these roles may not work anymore. Parents may not be able to play the parts they did when the family was young, like making the decisions, providing emotional support, or smoothing tensions between family members. Just because you were always the ‘responsible one’ and your sister was expected to be taken care of doesn’t mean that you have to continue to own those roles in caregiving.
The FCA fact sheet, Caregiving with Your Siblings offers some useful tips for how to gain support from your siblings when you find you have become the designated caregiver for your parents:
1. Try to accept your siblings—and your parents—as they really are, not who you wish they were. Families are complicated and never perfect. There are no “shoulds” about how people feel. They are not bad people or bad children if they don’t feel the same as you do. If you can accept this, you are likelier to get more support from them, or, at least, less conflict.
2. Do not over-simplify. It’s easy to assume that you are completely right and your siblings are all wrong—or lazy, irresponsible, uncaring, etc. Each person has a different relationship with your parent, and each person’s outlook is bound to be different.
3. Ask yourself what you really want from your siblings. Before you can ask for what you want, you need to figure this out, and that’s not always as simple as it seems. First of all, ask yourself whether you really, deep-down, want help. Many caregivers say they do but actually discourage help. So think hard. Do you want them to do certain tasks regularly? Do you want them to give you time off once in a while? Or do you feel you have everything under control but you’d like them to contribute money for services or respite?
4. Or—and this is a big one for many caregivers—do you really not want them to do anything but you’d like more emotional support. Many caregivers feel lonely, isolated and unappreciated. If you’d like your siblings to check in on you more, ask them to call once a week. And tell them it would really help if they would say “thanks” or tell you you’re doing a good job. They are more likely to do this if you don’t criticize them for what they are not doing.
- Ask for help clearly and effectively.
- Asking is the first step. You might ask for help by saying: “Can you stay with mom every Thursday? I have to get the shopping done for the week and it gives me some time to myself.” Don’t fall into the common trap of thinking, “I shouldn’t have to ask.” Your siblings may assume that you have everything covered so they don’t recognize the added responsibilities and “burden.” They are involved with their own lives and struggles and not so attuned to yours that they can read your mind. Also, if you’re not exactly sure what you want from them, you may be giving them mixed messages.
- Ask directly and be specific. Many caregivers hint or complain or send magazine articles about the hardships of eldercare. But these strategies do not work well.
- Ask for what’s realistic. People get more when they don’t ask for the impossible. So consider the relationship your sibling has with Mom or Dad and ask for what that person can really give. If your sister can’t spend ten minutes with Mom without screaming at her, don’t ask her to spend time; ask for something that’s easier for her, like doing paperwork or bringing groceries.
5. Watch how you ask for help—and steer clear of the cycle of guilt and anger.
- Avoid making your siblings feel guilty. Yes, really. Guilt makes people uncomfortable and defensive. They might get angry, minimize or criticize what you are doing, or avoid you. That is likely to make you angry and then you will try harder to make them feel guilty. They will attack back or withdraw even more. And round and round you go.
- Sometimes your siblings will criticize you because they are genuinely concerned about your parents. Try to listen to these concerns without judgment and consider whether it is useful feedback. At the same time, be bold by asking for appreciation for all that you are doing—and remember to say thanks back when someone is helpful.
- Be careful of your tone and language when you request something. It’s not always easy to hear the way we sound to others. You might think you are asking for help in a nice way, but if you’re angry, that’s the tone your siblings will hear. And they’re likely to react in unhelpful ways.
6. Get help from a professional outside the family. Families have long, complicated histories, and during this very emotional passage, it is often hard to communicate with each other without overreacting, misinterpreting or fighting old battles. Even the healthiest families can sometimes use the help of an objective professional. People like family therapists, social workers, geriatric care managers, physicians or clergy can help siblings establish what is real about a parent’s health and needs in order to help distribute responsibilities more equitably. In family meetings, they can help you stay focused on the topic at hand and help you avoid bringing up old arguments.
7. Steer clear of power struggles over your parent’s assignment of legal powers. Whether or not you have been given your parent’s legal powers over finances or health, you need to remember that it is your parent who has made these decisions. If you have your mom’s or dad’s power of attorney, be sure to keep detailed records and send your siblings statements about how you have spent Mom’s money. This may seem like a lot of extra work, but record-keeping is required by law, and being open will reduce distrust or distortion—and lawsuits. If a sibling has been given legal power, try to accept your parent’s decision and don’t take it as a personal attack on you. Do your best to work with the sibling who has the authority by presenting expenses and bills in black and white. If the sibling who has the purse strings doesn’t cooperate, then bring in a professional to explain your parent’s needs and to mediate. If you are concerned about manipulation, a changed will or undue influence, contact your local Adult Protective Services.
8. Don’t let inheritance disputes tear your family apart. If you feel wronged by the way your parents have divided their money and property, it’s natural to be upset, especially when you are grieving. You may feel that you deserve more because you have cared for your parents. If that’s what you feel, you need to discuss this with your parents while they are alive and can make these decisions. If you suspect foul play by another sibling then this is the time to consult an attorney or Adult Protective Services.
Let us know how these tips work for you. Do you have other suggestions to add that have worked well for your family?
FCA fact sheet: Caregiving with Your Siblings (English Version)
FCA fact sheet: “Caregiving with Your Siblings” (Chinese Version)
FCA fact sheet: “Caregiving with Your Siblings” (Spanish Version)
Please Give Credit
Holiday Time, Siblings and Parent Care by Leah Eskenazi, MSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.