Yesterday I was speaking with an eldercare attorney about ways in which caregivers could better manage estate planning and caregiving overall. “It would help,” he said, “if siblings divided up the work.” Yes, yes it would. However, as most family caregivers know, “There’s always one.” In most families there is typically one sibling who shoulders most of the responsibility of caregiving. Who that “one” is depends on a number of things. In some families, caregiving falls to the sibling who lives the closest to Mom or Dad. Some families assume a sibling who is unmarried or has no dependents of their own should take on the role. Sometimes a parent decides who they want to manage their affairs. Some siblings raise their hand and say, “I’m in charge.” No matter how it happens, caregiving with siblings is fraught with challenges. Think about it: is there anyone in your life who can push your buttons as quickly and artfully as your sibling? A harmless comment, even a compliment, can trigger a feeling from childhood and revert the most mature adults back to their seven-year old selves. Think, “She’s looking at me,” or, “He started it!” Whether you are “the one” or a supporting player, all siblings have a role in keeping the peace, and most importantly, supporting your aging parent or parents during a time of need. So how can siblings work together and avoid the emotional landmines during one of the most important times they may ever face as a family?
Here are six strategies for surviving caregiving with siblings:
Play to each sibling’s strengths: We all have different strengths. I am great at execution; I can manage logistics like nobody’s business. I’m also great at research. I can find the answer to anything with Google. I’m not so good at the softer skills so I’m not the best sibling to put in charge of keeping the relatives and neighbors updated when a family member is sick. During a stressful time such as caregiving, try to focus on what each family member is best at and assign tasks accordingly.
Don’t try to fix anyone. Likewise, we all have different weaknesses and caregiving is not the time to try to get a sibling to be different. If your younger brother has always been disorganized, he’s not going to become organized amid a caregiving crisis. Again, play to people’s strengths.
Communicate often and broadly. Information will flow best if everyone in the family is hearing the same messages at the same time. Avoid confusion, misinformation, and misinterpretations by planning group conversations that include all siblings whenever possible. Schedule regular family meetings, set up group emails, or plan a Google hangout so everyone hears the same thing at the same time.
Seek professional help.If you and your siblings have questions or conflicts, perhaps you should call in a professional. An eldercare attorney can help sort through estate planning in a way that honors your parents’ wishes and is most equitable for all. A senior housing specialist can help defuse some of the emotions that arise when caregiving with siblings and deciding whether or not to relocate your parents from a family home to assisted living. Financial planners can provide peace of mind that the family is saving and spending as prudently as possible. A few good dollars spent can save thousands in the long run – and spare hurt feelings too!
Take charge. If you are ‘the one’ chances are you are, or will be, your parents’ power of attorney and healthcare proxy. If that is the case, own it. While you may choose to seek input from your siblings, you, and they, must respect your parent’s decision that you have been placed in charge. Your parents gave you the role because they trusted you. You need to trust yourself. If your siblings don’t like it, that is unfortunate but hopefully they too can respect your role. If they do not, know that you acted to the best of your ability and let that be enough.
Leave Mommy and Daddy out of it. Perhaps when you were kids, you and your siblings ran to your parents to sort out petty squabbles and more significant misunderstandings. Those days are over. Do not burden the person who requires care with sibling disagreements. They have enough to worry about and do not need the guilt, worry, and stress that comes from knowing the family is at odds.
Liz O'DonnellCaregiving with Siblings: Six Strategies for Survival