Sibling Rivalry: 6 Tips for Negotiating Eldercare

July 1, 2014

When a parent is ailing and in need of help, siblings are a ready-made caregiving team, sharing responsibilities and supporting one another through emotionally tough times. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple.

sibling rivalry negotiating eldercare

In some cases, a parent’s health crisis may bring siblings together for the first time since they lived under the same roof, and issues left unresolved since childhood can rebound quickly. Even siblings who consider themselves to be close may find that their relationships become strained as the stresses of eldercare dredge up long-forgotten resentments.

But when siblings can work together, the rewards are worth the effort, said Margaret Bohn-Galas, MSSA LISW-S, a licensed independent social worker with Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio. She offered the following tips for preventing family dynamics from complicating an already difficult situation.

  1. Call a family meeting immediately. Busy schedules and geographic distance is no longer an excuse in the age of cell phones and Skype. “Providing as much information to everyone as soon as possible allows everyone to process and digest what they need to know.”
  2. If possible, invite someone from outside of the family with knowledge of your parent’s medical situation to help facilitate the conversation. VNA of Ohio’s social workers serve effectively in this role.
  3. During the meeting, establish a clear caregiving plan that involves everyone. Write it down, and give everyone a copy. “When a plan isn’t in place, people are making emotional decisions rather than logical ones, and that becomes a bad situation,” Bohn-Galas said.
  4. Understand that not everyone can help in the same way. Assign caregiving duties according to individual strengths and abilities. In most cases, one adult child (usually a daughter who lives closest) takes on the majority of the responsibility for an elderly parent. But other adult children still can play important roles in the caregiving effort. “Everyone’s reactions to stressors are different,” Bohn-Galas said. “Everyone’s lives are different. But it doesn’t mean they can’t help.” For example, a brother who is uncomfortable providing hands-on care might be recruited to help handle financial tasks. A sister who works full-time and has small children might not be able to stay overnight with the parent, but she can cover grocery shopping and trips to the pharmacy.
  5. Remember that the sibling who takes primary responsibility for hands-on care of the parent must have regular breaks. That can mean scheduling times for other siblings to take over or bringing in outside help. Whatever the solution, respite care must be part of the plan, Bohn-Galas said. “If someone is feeling unsupported, it’s going to be a lot harder for that person to help the parent.”
  6. Keep the focus on taking care of the parent in need, and work to keep past family conflicts in the past, Bohn-Galas said.

“Ask yourself, ‘What does mom or dad want? What is the goal?’” she said. “If the goal is to keep mom or dad at home, (siblings) need to check their baggage at the door. If that happens, it’s amazing the healing that can happen between siblings while they are caring for a parent. It is really pretty beautiful.”

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