Caregiving and sibling friction
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I was an only child and have always wondered what it would be like to have a brother or sister – someone who shared the experience of growing up with you and who could help you see your life from another perspective. I used to think it would be helpful to have a brother or sister to share the responsibility and the burdens of caregiving for my father too.
Now, I'm not so sure about the caregiving part.
Among the dozens of e-mails I read from my caregiver mail list service, more than a few are written by sad and angry caregivers complaining about their relationships with siblings who do not (or cannot) contribute to the care of the parent, or who disagree with some aspect of the caregiving situation, or who accuse the caregiver of trying to get an inside track on the inheritance, or who have some other issue that is poisoning the sibling relationship. I know a lot of people are just venting on the Internet, but it's a lot of people.
I don't have to look beyond my own family to see this is a real problem with sad consequences. When my grandfather (my mother's father) became infirm many years ago, my mother and her siblings (a sister and two brothers) talked over what to do. The older of the brothers volunteered to take charge of finding a nursing home and managing grandpa's move. Without getting into details or questioning motives, this brother wound up with grandfather's house and all his assets. My mother never spoke to this brother again in her life.
Many factors can drive a wedge between siblings. The stress of an ill or infirm parent, long-established family dynamics, or even a resurgence of dormant sibling rivalries can all contribute to strained relations. Or the conflict can be driven by honest disagreement over the parent's medical care, living situation, or by circumstances, such as one of the siblings living far away or being unable to contribute financially.
I am sure the majority of siblings handle parent caregiving situations well, and I am equally sure that they all have an occasional disagreement to iron out. I wonder how many damaged sibling relationships could have been preserved (and maybe still can be preserved) by taking a more open and collaborative approach to the caregiving. The guidelines family experts recommend are:
Everyone be honest. Tell your siblings how you feel about the situation, let them know how you think you can contribute support, or if you are the primary caregiver, what kind of help you need. Now is not the time to bite your tongue.
If you are the primary caregiver, be sure to keep the others siblings informed about the parent's living situation and medical condition. Invite them to take part in medical consultations.
As the primary caregiver, be flexible and let siblings help in ways they can help. Consider: Are they financially strapped or well off? Do they have an 80-hour workweek, or are they retired with time to spare? Appreciatively accept whatever help they are able to give.
Expect differences of opinion and try to find room for compromise. If necessary, arrange a family meeting and bring in a facilitator, such as a social worker, clergy or mutually trusted friend.
Use community resources to take up the slack, such as local agencies on aging, senior center, adult day care, visiting nurses or other community resources.
Caring for an elderly parent is important, but so is caring for the family that will survive that parent. Imagine the pain of a parent watching their children grow estranged over caregiving conflicts. More than anyone, they know that, in the end, your family is all you've got.
Video: When mental illness enters the family | Dr. Lloyd Sederer | TEDxAlbany
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