Sibling relationships can be fraught even in the best of times. Under the stress and strain of dealing with the needs of aging parents, they can deteriorate swiftly and dramatically. It’s a common issue faced by families from all walks of life. But it can be easier to manage if you know that to expect.
It’s important to make the distinction between knowing what to expect and having expectations.
Most people, if they are honest, have an idea of how they’d like their sibling group to handle the various financial, emotional, and day-to-day needs as parents get older. But reality doesn’t always line up with those expectations. With the added pressure and anxiety of having to make important decisions and sacrifices, adult siblings often fall into old childhood patterns, triggering each other in unhealthy ways. Emotions run high. The concept of what’s “fair” gets distorted.
To help the children of parents who need care get ahead of certain issues, we’ve compiled a list of 5 of the most common problematic scenarios along with possible solutions.
#1 One sibling takes on the lion’s share of responsibility and effort
This is probably the number one problem families face when caring for aging parents. One person ends up doing most of the heavy lifting related to day-to-day support and care. Often, this sibling is the one who lives closest to the parent. Sometimes, it’s the eldest. Other times, it’s the sibling who has the closest parental relationship. And in many cases, this responsibility seems to fall to women instead of men, even if the woman in question is a daughter-in-law instead of a daughter.
Whatever the case, the first step in resolving this kind of imbalance is to have an open and honest conversation about everyone’s concerns, preferences, and capabilities. One sibling might live in closer proximity while another may have greater financial resources. Or a sibling who may not be emotionally or geographically able to serve as primary caregiver might be able to take on an administrative role doing research, coordinating care, and scheduling appointments. There are many different ways siblings can support each other and their parents if they are willing to be creative about how they divide up the responsibilities.
#2 Siblings disagree about how much and what kind of care is needed
This scenario can stem from several different issues. A sibling that lives far away and isn’t witnessing things first hand may doubt another sibling’s judgment about the situation. Or sometimes a parent is resisting care and one sibling is supporting that resistance. Whatever the case, in these kinds of cases an outside assessment from an expert can be very helpful. A geriatric care manager, for instance, can be an impartial resource to help accurately identify risks. Health experts, like a parent’s primary care physician, can also offer valuable insights and guidance.
#3 Siblings argue about the cost of care
Sadly, challenging conversations about caring for an elderly parent often come down to money. Getting the right care can be a costly affair, and those costs are not always borne equally. If one sibling has greater financial assets than the others, there might be an expectation that they should step up to cover expenses; but they may not find that to be a fair way to handle the situation.
The best way to avoid these kinds of conflicts is to talk about financial roles well before anyone needs to put up any money. This is a conversation that should include the parents and take their own savings into account as well as the possibility of taking out long-term care insurance. There are also other financial resources including Medicaid, Veterans Aid, and so forth. It’s best to look at the options ahead of time so that these conversations aren’t happening in the midst of a health or housing crisis.
#4 A financially challenged sibling moves in to help without understanding the full responsibility
While this arrangement can benefit both the sibling and the parent(s), it is a solution that requires a lot of up-front thought and consideration. On the surface, it may seem like an obvious win-win, but the sibling who is moving in needs to fully understand the scope of the responsibility they are taking on. Everyone needs to be very realistic about what’s needed, and other siblings need to understand that they will still have roles to play.
#5 One sibling “takes over,” excluding other siblings
Sometimes, the sibling that has taken on the role of primary caregiver will close other family members out, limiting their access to information and keeping them from being involved in critical decisions. In some cases, they may even position themselves as a gatekeeper and try to keep other family members from talking to or visiting the parent in their care.
This kind of scenario may just be the result of a control issue—an overburdened sibling feeling it’s their right to make decisions solo since no one else is helping—but it can also indicate more serious issues. In the worst cases, there may be issues of undue influence or even abuse. If talking with the person who is exercising this control doesn’t work, it may be necessary to get Adult Protective Services involved to ensure the parent’s safety.
Keys to Success: Planning and Communication
Families that take the time in advance to create all the relevant estate planning and other documents (powers of attorney for healthcare and finances, a will, end-of-life care plans, etc.) stand a much better chance of helping elderly parents make a smooth transition into a new stage of life. And if siblings are able to communicate openly and honestly throughout the process, they will be able to maintain good relationships as they work together to do what’s best for their aging parents.
If you and your siblings need a hand navigating through the care and planning for your parent, we’d be happy to guide you. Contact us and we’ll help your family minimize potential problems.