When ageing parents need care, family members tend to act as primary caregivers. Usually, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of adult children. If there are siblings, the main burden often rests with the brother or sister who lives closest, has the most time or is deemed to be the most suited to the task of caregiving. It’s easy to see how conflict can arise.
Is caring for your older parents causing tensions between you and your siblings? Does one person feel they’re having to do it all? Are they frustrated that others don’t seem to be pulling their weight? It’s a testing time, and one that demands advanced communications and conflict resolution skills that you simply may not have.
You might be experiencing many feelings as a caregiver yourself like guilt, resentment and frustration. You may also be seeing your sibling relationships deteriorate over disagreements about care, money, inheritance, property or other emotional issues affecting the care of your parents. Whatever issues arise, caring for older parents can be an extremely difficult situation and stressful time for all concerned. ‘Disagreements and miscommunications with those around us can leave us feeling angry, disappointed, rejected and lonely,’ explains one experienced family and relationship counsellor.
To successfully navigate these choppy family waters, you may find it helpful to speak to a professional to gain clarity of what’s going on and develop greater emotional intelligence. Only you can decide whether family counselling is the way forward for you and your siblings.
Here are some suggestions and strategies to help siblings and family members work together more positively when it comes to sharing care responsibilities.
You may start from a position of expecting equal shares of responsibility for caregiving, but is this actually a realistic prospect? Typically, one or two siblings will take on the bulk of the daily work – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather than criticising the others for not pulling their weight, it’s more productive to focus on what each person can do and play to their individual strengths.
Everyone has a different personality and skillset. Some people are better at hands-on care, others are good at running errands, fixing things around the house or dealing with financial matters. Is there a solicitor in the family who could sort out a Lasting Power of Attorney or a will? A computer whizz to set up an iPad for video calls with mum’s distant relatives? Someone with a car and time to take dad to a medical appointment? Recognise individual strengths and weaknesses and ask your siblings to help with the tasks that suit them best.
Clearly, adult children who live near parents who need care are better placed to help as and when needed. From doing the weekly shopping to picking up a prescription, or even rushing them to A&E in an emergency; it’s only natural that they’re the ones in charge of seeing to their parents’ day-to-day care needs. Those who live further away are at a disadvantage. It is logistically much harder for them to do the same amount. It can be more productive if they can be tasked with location-independent research or paperwork and perhaps provide greater financial contributions.
Long-distance siblings may also be ideally placed to provide occasional respite care for their main caregiver sibling. Caregiving is a huge physical and emotional commitment and a 24/7 job. All carers need a break from the constant stress of being responsible for everything and a visiting brother or sister could provide that relief in person. Alternatively they could help by paying for day care or respite care at home.
How do you ask for help when you need it?
Often, and through no fault of their own, long-distance siblings don’t have a full understanding of the situation on the ground. They probably aren’t able to recognise the sheer amount of work the main caregiver is actually providing. Worse still, they may try to give well-meant advice or even take charge, which can be frustrating for the other siblings.
This is where honest and open communication is all-important. Many primary caregivers assume that everyone is in the loop even when this is not the case. It can be extremely challenging for someone on the ‘outside’ who has never had to care for an elderly person to understand and anticipate what is needed. Not sharing information, oblique requests or subtle hints are not sufficient – no-one can read minds. It’s how misunderstandings arise. You need to be able to ask for help directly. Create a list of realistic tasks that they can help with and have an honest conversation about who can help with what.
Sadly, many siblings find themselves mired in arguments about their parents’ care that never seem to get resolved. Some may refuse to help at all, others may stop helping at some point. Some may be in denial about how serious the situation is and refuse to see the problem. If you’ve exhausted all reasonable approaches without success and your relationship with your siblings isn’t getting any better while your resentment and stress get worse, it may be best to just let it go.
It may be a difficult path to choose but sometimes it’s better for your own mental health as much as your parents’ wellbeing to carry on caregiving without family help. There are organisations that support caregivers in many different ways that you can contact. As well as offering practical advice, support groups can help provide some much-needed respite care. This is crucial if you’re feeling overwhelmed with your extra burden of care and responsibility (without having a sibling by your side). You won’t be without backup. Ultimately, it is your choice how best to proceed.