It’s a perennial topic here at AgingOptions, and for a good reason: caregiving for aging parents isn’t just a logistical issue, it’s a deeply emotional one as well. That’s especially true if you have other family members in the mix, all with their own opinions, desires, and voices to be heard. Even the strongest sibling relationships can be strained by the process of caring for an aging loved one.
That’s why we thought this article from the Health section of US News was worth bringing back your attention. (It has been about six months since we first shared it.) In the article, writer Lisa Esposito provides real wisdom for how to approach the process of creating a care plan for your aging parents by acting together as a family, making sure that everyone’s feelings are heard, respected, and included. We might add that this is also a time when outside professional advice can be vitally important, as we’ll suggest at the end of the article.
Caring for Aging Parents is Uncharted Territory
“When it becomes clear that an aging parent needs caregiving, it’s uncharted territory for adult children,” Esposito’s article begins. “Ideally, brothers and sisters rally together to recognize a parent’s needs and challenges, make plans to address them and volunteer for essential caregiving tasks. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Caregiving is often where the rubber meets the road, bringing to a head all kinds of dynamics, hurts, and preferences that weren’t expressed before. “In many families, sibling caregiving roles are never explicitly discussed,” Esposito writes, and this can lead to all kinds of imbalances and conflicts as some family members “step up to take on caregiving responsibilities while others step back.”
In her article, Esposito outlines insights and tips from family caregiving experts to help siblings focus on connection, communication, and creating a peaceful environment for their aging parents. While her piece is much more thorough, and we highly recommend reading it for details, we’ve brought you our favorite key pieces of information below. Read on!
Priority One: Keep Communication Open
Communication is key. It’s not a cliché, especially in family caregiving situations. “Making sure everyone is abreast of a parent’s condition – what to expect, tasks needed, requests for help – is a major caregiving challenge,” Esposito says.
The good news is that we’ve never lived in a more convenient time for instant, long-distance communication. Esposito encourages families to connect through quick calls and texts for more informal needs, or utilize more formal channels. For example, there are specially-designed resources that caregivers can use to easily connect with family. Websites and apps like CaringBridge, Lotsa Helping Hands, and Caring Village are uniquely designed by caregivers and can be an invaluable tool for staying connected.
Aside from dedicated apps and websites, Esposito suggests that virtual family meetings through video call tools like Zoom or online checklists that everyone can access can also be incredibly helpful. “Spelled-out tasks and responsibilities can bring clarity and reduce friction,” she says.
It’s a Big Responsibility, so Share the Load
One of the most common issues that comes up in family caregiving, especially among siblings that live in varied geographical regions, is that the siblings doing the direct caregiving can’t really express how difficult the responsibility is. As Esposito puts it, “You don’t realize how much goes into caregiving until you’re already immersed halfway up to your elbows with multiple responsibilities to meet.”
As much as possible, Esposito encourages siblings to find a way to share the load of responsibility in order to prevent burnout or resentment. We’ll discuss the logistics of taking part when you live far away in the next section, but in general it’s a good idea for every sibling to take on an assigned role and stick to it. Tasks like administering medications, dealing with the legal side of things (attorneys, paperwork, etc.), household chores, scheduling appointments (doctors, physical therapy, etc.), and transportation are among the many tasks that can be delegated to different siblings depending on their interest and skillset.
If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry. Putting together the puzzle of sharing care between busy siblings is not impossible. Esposito provides a resource in the Happy Healthy Caregiver website, which “offers downloadable worksheets including one that spells out myriad caregiver responsibilities with the second column left blank for whichever sibling is assigned to undertake each one.”
How To Contribute from A Distance
What if you live far away from your aging parents? Esposito encourages you to still be involved. “Some caregiving tasks must be performed in person but many can be done from a distance,” she says. She adds that the long-distance sibling can be indispensable in helping with financial management, filing insurance claims, video calls with parents, research of different options for long-term care, calling Medicare/Medicaid, and even ordering medical and personal supplies to be delivered to the home.
But it doesn’t have to be all business. “Thoughtful gestures matter, too,” says Esposito. Gift cards, DoorDash orders, and even paying for landscaping or other services can really go a long way for morale and bonding in a family, even from far away.
Siblings Have to Learn to Cooperate
Deciding which sibling is the primary caregiver is often a matter of proximity and convenience. “Primary family caregivers tend to emerge when an aging parent becomes vulnerable,” Esposito explains. “Parents may have already singled out an adult child to act for them. Or, a son or daughter simply sees that a parent needs help and so naturally fills the void. [After all,] somebody has to do it.”
Because of this, there’s typically no plan in place; everyone just has to fall into a new rhythm without being prepared, and “sibling dynamics can take unexpected directions.”
Liz O’Donnell, author and founder of Working Daughter (an online community for caregiving women), is blunt about being the designated sibling. “If you are the one who’s designated by your parents […] then own the role,” she says. “Your parents picked you for a reason. It may not feel fair or comfortable to everybody else in the family, but for whatever reason, they picked you. So don’t be afraid to be in charge.”
But Cooperation Isn’t Always Easy!
But be aware that cooperation can be tough, so prepare for the unexpected. “Sibling hierarchies can reassert themselves with oldest/youngest/middle child dynamics,” Esposito warns. “Adult children filling the lead caregiving role may take feedback from long-distance or less-involved brothers or sisters as not-so-constructive criticism.”
O’Donnell rejoins with wise advice: “The way I tell people to operate in that role, if they’re choosing to try to maintain healthy relationships with everybody involved, is high input/low democracy,” she says. “So, if you want to gather input from the other siblings in the family […] that’s great. It’s great to feel heard as a sibling who isn’t the one who’s in charge or wasn’t assigned proxy. But ultimately, that sibling who is the proxy or the power of attorney has to make the decisions.”
Dealing With Common Excuses
It’s an unpleasant truth that not every sibling is going to jump at the chance to get involved, and there are lots of reasons (read: excuses) why. Many of them seem self-serving on their face, and can cause friction among family members. Esposito says that the top three that emerge when speaking to experts on caregiving are: I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money, and/or I can’t bear to see Mom/Dad like that. For all three of these, Esposito offers rebuttals from author Carol Bradley Bursack, who works with caregiving families.
If time is the issue, then it’s fair to recognize that people are busy, certainly. But Bradley Bursack notes, “More often, it’s: Who among us has the time? Nobody. So, you can assign things or say: What can you do to help?”
Not having the money to contribute can be a valid issue, but it shouldn’t be a hindrance to being helpful. “Some people, quite frankly, just have better-paying jobs than others,” Bradley Bursack says. “However, that person can still take on important responsibilities like online research or filing a parent’s income tax.”
Watching your parents decline in any way is very, very difficult for adult children, “and some shy away,” as Esposito puts it. Every sibling—especially the caregiving sibling—should be allowed to grieve this natural process. Esposito adds that, “Some people may be more emotionally equipped to handle a parent’s physical or mental decline than others. It can be helpful to seek out support such as individual counseling or joining a support group for long-distance caregivers.”
Recognize—and Lean Into—Each Other’s Strengths
The good news is that caregiving is a multi-faceted process, and “everyone has what it takes to pitch in with at least one or two essential caregiving aspects,” according to Esposito.
O’Donnell advises, “Play to your strengths. We all have them. We’re all different as siblings, so any way you can farm (tasks) out and everyone has a role, then there’s less frustration.”
If communication is your gift, reach out through phone calls or email to health care providers or attorneys or any other important messaging. If administration is your sweet spot, handle finances or paperwork. If you’re a hands-on, service-oriented person, take on the errands and chores. O’Donnell calls it “magical thinking” to expect that your siblings will do things exactly the way you do, so instead of fighting about it, make that part of your unique family strategy.
Focus on Mutual Empathy
Most importantly, a little empathy can go a long, long way. “Families are more dispersed now than they have ever been,” O’Donnell says. “Tensions can easily arise between the local caregiver and the long-distance caregiver.”
No matter what your role is, it’s imperative to try and put yourself in your siblings’ shoes. Every role has benefits and pitfalls, but feelings can easily get hurt if you aren’t careful. O’Donnell provides the following scenario: “Maybe the long-distance caregiver comes into town for the holidays and observes a massive decline, but the local caregiver isn’t seeing that decline as much because they’re seeing their parent every day. Or, they’re totally aware of it but they’re doing the best they can, and the long-distance sibling comes in and says: ‘Whoa, Mom’s really looking frailer than she used to.’ The local caregiver can take that very personally.”
This is where empathy and understanding can mean the difference between connection and conflict. Esposito suggests a series of helpful mindsets, including compassion for each sibling’s situation, allowing space for non-dominant family members to express themselves, self-care and self-preservation (putting on your own oxygen mask first), and most importantly making peace with how it is.
Prioritize the Connection
Caregiving can have a straining effect on the relationship between siblings, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When conflict arises with a sibling, Bradley Bursack suggests, “Just try listening to them. Listen well, and listen with an open heart. And try not to remember grudges.”
Caregiving experts agree that families who focus on connecting with one another, caring for one another, and listening with empathy, tend to get stronger through the caregiving process.
O’Donnell puts it this way: “If you can get to the point that none of the dynamic really matters, all that really matters is: There’s an incredible opportunity to show up for someone who’s vulnerable, and you can see that caregiving is something that can give to you, not take from you, then that’s where you can really start to connect as a family.”
Get Some Objective Professional Help and Advice
Often the best way to defuse sibling friction over caregiving is to bring in an objective professional. At AgingOptions, we can refer you to geriatric care managers and firms whom we trust to give solid, objective advice and guidance. Also, through our partners at Life Point Law, we have planned and conducted hundreds of family conferences through the years. Your family may benefit from such a conference, held on “neutral ground” at our office.
Contact us if you feel you and your family would benefit from a carefully planned and mediated conversation about parent care. We can also refer you to trusted and qualified companies who provide in-depth caregiving consultation. Let us know how we can assist you on the journey.
(originally reported at https://health.usnews.com)