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,” says 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 a book, “They’re Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy.”
In 43 percent of American families, one sibling usually has the responsibility of caring for a parent, 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.
In cases where sibling relationships deteriorated, 46 percent of caregivers blame it on brothers and sisters who were not willing to help.
Russo found that caregivers often feel abandoned by their siblings and old rivalries 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 says.
To avoid conflict, Russo suggests siblings make a plan long before the parent needs care; then, when the time comes, keep these things in mind:
A brother who lives 10 states away can’t drive Mom to the doctor, but he can do her taxes.
DIVVY UP THE RESPONSIBILITIES
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. 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.
“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,” says 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.”
It’s not unusual for siblings who live far away to feel guilty. But one thing they can do long distance is offer emotional support for the 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.”
CONSIDER ASKING FOR HELP OUTSIDE THE FAMILY
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 for services like adult day care or caregiver support.
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.