Paying for Eldercare: Siblings Coming Together

July 24, 2015

In the past we’ve explored financing senior living and the assumptions that can get in the way of managing those costs. Today we tackle the topic of sibling relationships and how they can make those financial waters even tougher to navigate – and since 80% of us grew up with at least one brother or sister in the house, we see this issue come up quite a bit.

Sibling conflict around making these financial arrangements often arises from three areas:

  1. Childhood Roles and Rivalries Reappear. Nothing puts siblings back into the mix faster than having to assume a joint parenting role for mom or dad. Dysfunctional dynamics and rivalries that have lain dormant for years can instantly resurface, and unhealthy labels like “mom’s favorite” or the “black sheep” can take hold and cause resentment.
  1. A Sibling Takes Over. This can be related to the above; an eldest child instantly assumes a management role without consulting the other(s), or a sibling who always had Dad’s ear decides she’s the one best-suited to make decisions. Quieter siblings start to experience familiar pangs of resentment or feeling bullied, and an unhealthy dynamic takes hold.
  1. Assumptions About Financial Capability. This comes into play mostly when mom or dad lacks sufficient finances to cover care costs. Siblings who have had nothing to do with one another’s personal finances are suddenly forced to evaluate one another’s capability to pitch in. Often they rely on surface indicators, like which sister just bought a boat, or who sends their kids to private school – both of which can mean little in terms of one’s actual cash flow. Add to that differing opinions over what constitutes excessive spending, and well – you can see how this often spirals downward quickly.

Here are some strategies we have found helpful:

  1. Convene a Family Meeting. This should happen ASAP and should be held in person, if at all possible. Goals for this meeting should start with the majority agreeing upon ground rules for respectful and inclusive communication, and include establishing a realistic cost of care; coming up with a number that needs to be raised by all parties; an open discussion of what each person can afford to contribute, and whether factors like physical caregiving should offset that financial contribution. If there’s more research to be done, decide as a group who will be in charge of what, and the mechanism for reporting back. Which brings us to:
  1. Communication. These delicate and potentially divisive decisions will go a lot more smoothly with consistent and effective communication among all parties. With all the channels open to us – email, conference call, Google chat, Skype, private family Facebook pages – there’s no excuse for not keeping siblings in the loop. Schedule regular check-ins while financial decisions are in process, and share updates in the meantime. You might also consider a shared Google calendar to track crucial dates and meetings associated with managing mom or dad’s care costs.
  1. Hire a Mediator. If family dynamics make constructive dialogue impossible, there are outside resources you can turn to. You might consider asking your family attorney to mediate; otherwise, there are services that provide elder care mediators trained specifically to help siblings navigate financial decisions and all aspects of arranging parents’ continuing care. You can read more about them on the AARP website.