Partnering With Siblings in Caregiving

July 26, 2017


Sisterhood and brotherhood are a condition people have to work at.

Maya Angelou

Most of us with siblings have seen our share of family drama, often when it comes to matters concerning our parents. Even as adults, we expect mom and dad to be able to take care of themselves. When that independence is threatened, it can cause a lot of anxiety and strain among siblings struggling to adjust to the new reality of having to provide for needy elders.  We’ve talked about how siblings can best tackle this when it comes to financial needs; let’s focus now on how siblings can most effectively overcome differences and partner around physical and emotional caregiving.
Think Ahead
First, it’s best to broach this subject sooner than later, before a crisis hits and people are scrambling. The less stressed out people are, the more rational and productive the conversation is likely to be. Start the ball rolling by scheduling a conversation either in person or over Skype, taking the time to craft an agenda beforehand that covers the critical ground you need to cover, including

  • Existing and potential health problems: Given her current health and family history, what is mom struggling with now, and what is likely to crop up?
  • Current physical needs: Where does Mom need to be on a day-to-day basis – does she have an ongoing volunteer commitment? Regular doctors’ appointments, or other personal care appointments?
  • Present sibling commitments: You’ll want to run through everyone’s work and family responsibilities, as well as potential availability on days, nights, weekends.

Set Ground Rules, and Focus on the Work
No matter when these conversations take place, there’s potential for emotions and resentments to run high. Agree on some basic ground rules ahead of time (one person talking at a time, for example, no pot shots), and try and take the heat out of the mix by staying away from individual sibling’s feelings and experiences (“Dad was never that nice to me!”). Instead stay focused on what Dad needs from you all, both now and in the future. If you have good reason to think this isn’t achievable, you might consider hiring a family mediator trained to help facilitate potentially volatile conversations.
Match Tasks with Talents
When you have specific work outlined, try and divide up tasks according to expertise. A sibling in healthcare might be able to take on some doctors’ visits, while another who’s a financial planner could manage the bills. Also, be sensitive to potential boundary issues; a brother might not be the best person to help mom with her bathing needs. And don’t write off siblings who live far away – one of them might be able to pay for a cleaning service, for example, or maybe schedule a trip home to relieve a sibling in the trenches.
Be Realistic
Given the limits of geography alone, it’s highly unlikely that the work to be done will be split evenly. Your shared goal should be to work for the optimum scenario as far as fairness goes. And distance aside, no one can be forced into helping out – that’s just the reality. There are some resources out there to help offset the burden of family caregiving when it falls disproportionately, including some that allow for compensation. The AARP goes into more detail on their website.  
Keep Your Sense of Humor and Perspective
Caregiving is trying, exhausting, and stressful – and it can do a number on the strongest of sibling relationships. Try and remember this situation is, somewhat sadly, a temporary one. Try and step back when you can to remember what you enjoy about one another, and laugh when you can. Some families we know create private Facebook groups to share jokes, memories, talk about the tough times – anything to keep the lines of communication open.
Have you had success with your siblings working out caregiving for parents? Tell us in the comments!