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How to Get Help from Your Siblings When Caring for a Parent How to Get Help from Your Siblings When Caring for a Parent
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How to Get Help from Your Siblings When Caring for a Parent

Insights & Ideas Team •  November 18, 2015 | Home and Family

When her elderly mother started having serious health problems, Francine Russo said it never occurred to her to step up and help with the caregiving. “I was the one who lived far away. I didn’t have a close relationship with my younger sister—my only sibling who lived near my parents—and she never really asked me to do anything,” said Russo. “It was only after my mother died that I found myself racked with guilt over having been so uninvolved.” 

As a journalist, Russo turned the regret she felt over her own experience into an opportunity to explore the challenges faced by adult children who care for aging parents and, in particular, the family dynamics that surface when one sibling emerges as the primary caregiver, which is often the case.

One sibling has the responsibility for providing most or all of the care for a parent in 43 percent of American families, according to a survey conducted for the Home Instead Senior Care® network. Typically, the primary caregiver is a 50-year-old sister, traditionally viewed as the “responsible one” or the “organizer,” who puts in nearly 20 hours a week taking care of an aging parent, usually a mother. Often, it’s the daughter who lives closest to Mom. 

No matter who assumes the role of primary caregiver, however, the changing family dynamic will have an impact on sibling relationships—for better or for worse—depending on the siblings’ ability to make important decisions together and divide and execute the caregiving responsibilities, according to the survey. In cases where sibling relationships deteriorated, 46 percent of caregivers blame it on brothers and sisters who were not willing to help. 

In researching her book, They’re Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy, Russo found caregivers often feel abandoned by their siblings who don’t understand what they’re going through. And amid the new family reality, old sibling rivalries often resurface. “It’s unconscious for the most part, but every dynamic that was established in the family when you were 10 years old gets re-enacted and thrown into high gear,” she said. “And the caregivers often become so resentful that they sabotage their chances of getting help. When that happens, bringing in a professional like a family therapist or social worker can save the situation and the family.”

To avoid conflict, Russo suggests siblings plan for who will become a parent’s primary caregiver long before the parent needs care; then, when the time comes, keep these things in mind:

1. Divvy up the remaining responsibilities realistically. The person who knows the most about what’s going on and who will likely do most of the caregiving should make a list of all the things that need to be done. Then each sibling should weigh in on how he or she can offer support by tapping into his or her own strengths and contributing in a way that’s realistic. A brother who lives 10 states away can’t drive Mom to the doctor, but he can do her taxes. A sister who lives nearby can volunteer to clean the house every other week. A tech-savvy sibling can set up a secure family website and post updates about Mom’s condition. When each person does what he or she can realistically do, there’s less potential for resentment to take hold.

WP Retirement and Taxes“One woman told me that when her mother’s health began to decline, she knew her brother—who didn’t get along well with Mom—wasn’t going to suddenly show up with chicken soup. So instead, the daughter offered to handle the caregiving responsibilities and asked her brother only to send a monthly check to help cover the expenses,” said Russo. “She didn’t inflict guilt. She didn’t get angry at him. She got what was possible to get from him, rather than ask for what was not possible to get.”

2. Show a little appreciation for each other. It’s not unusual for siblings who live far away to feel guilty about not shouldering more of the caregiving burden. But one thing they can do long distance is offer emotional support for their sibling who is the primary caregiver. “Instead of calling once a week and asking how Mom is doing, ask a different question. Ask your brother or sister, ‘How are you doing?’ The most important thing you can do for this sibling relationship and for the caregiver’s well-being is to give appreciation.”

3. Consider reaching beyond your immediate family for help. Even under the best of circumstances, caregiving can take its toll. Look for support among the many resources that are available in your community. Websites like The Family Caregiver Alliance and the Alzheimer’s Association offer state-by-state or local listings of a variety of resources from adult daycare to caregiver support networks.

When approached realistically and with thoughtfulness, caring for a parent can actually lead to stronger sibling relationships. In the Home Instead Senior Care® network survey, caregivers who felt supported by and worked well with their siblings were seven times more likely to say their relationships improved as a result of caregiving.

Based on what she learned through her research and looking back on her own experience, would Russo have done anything differently when her mother became ill? “Yes. I would have asked my sister, ‘What would you like me to do?’ And even if she answered, ‘I don’t know what you can do,’ I would have tried something different. Later, I did apologize to her, and I’m beginning to repair my relationship with her,” she said. “Just as important, I learned to forgive myself because what happens in everyone’s family is way bigger and more complex than any one person’s mistakes.”

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