Caregiving with Siblings: How to Get Along while Caring for Elderly Parents

sibling caregivers

Caring for elderly parents can be stressful on the best of days. But when siblings are involved, the situation can take a variety of twists and turns. You might find that you have an understanding caregiving companion who is right there beside you through all of the challenges and changes you are facing. You might find you and your siblings at odds over how to best care for your parents. Or you might find yourself somewhere between the two situations, with one week being full of harmony and the next full of acrimony.

As people live longer, their adult children often find themselves in the position of becoming family caregivers. The Family Caregiver Alliance says it’s not unusual for adult children to care for their elderly parents for a decade or longer. That’s a lot of time to work things out with siblings and create a flexible care plan, but it’s also plenty of time for the sibling relationship to sustain damage.

A 2020 report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving found that almost 42 million people provide care to family members over the age of 50. More than half of adult children said they had no choice in becoming a family caregiver[1]. And unfortunately, about 76% of family caregivers report that they don’t receive help from other family members[2].

It’s important to remember that siblings might be in very different places in their lives, which can lead to significant differences in how they view family caregiving and what they can provide. Almost a quarter of adults in the U.S. are now part of the Sandwich Generation, a group of individuals who have responsibilities for both aging parents and children or grandchildren. More than half of those aged 40 or older are caring for a parent age 65 or older as well as a child under the age of 18 (or providing financial support to an adult child). About 20% of them have done all three in the past year[3].

There is also the question of distance. About 75% of primary caregivers live within 20 minutes of the senior parent needing assistance. About 15% of all caregivers are providing long-distance help, as they reside an average of 450 miles away from their loved one[4]. Obviously, that distance can make caregiving quite difficult, especially if a parent suffers a medical emergency or needs intensive, hands-on care.

It isn’t unusual for siblings to be at very different stages and places in their lives. One might live far away, while another lives right next door to their elderly parents. One might have the financial means to provide assistance while another is barely making ends meet. One might have a child with special needs and devote their time to an entirely different type of caregiving, leaving them with little to no time to help out with an elderly parent.

Understanding and acknowledging these differences and working within what a person can and can’t provide is one of the key points to remember when trying to maintain harmony among caregiving siblings.

Why Do Siblings Fight Over Mom and Dad?

There are varied reasons why siblings might clash over how to best care for their parents. Much of it might come from emotional stress – watching your parents get older and frail can stir up all sorts of emotions from childhood, fear of loss, and even anger at how the years eventually rob us of our loved ones.

We also bring our own adult biases into the fray, including different ideas on how to handle finances, how to display emotion (or not), what is “best” for parents, and how much care is really necessary. For every sibling who wants to keep mom and dad at home as long as possible, there might be another who sees assisted living as a solution that should have been considered years ago.

There might even be a feeling of competition, a holdover from those days when you competed with your siblings for everything from better grades to sports honors to perceived affections.

Family caregiving often begins with one sibling who happens to live closer to the parents. Small things here and there, such as helping out with the grocery shopping or home maintenance, become the norm. At this point, it’s possible the adult child doesn’t even really see themselves as a caregiver. They’re just helping out from time to time, like any good son or daughter would do.

But when a parent gets sick, has much more difficulty getting around, needs increasing levels of help, or suffers some sort of injury that lands them in the hospital, suddenly family caregiving takes center stage.

When it’s time for siblings to come together to care for elderly parents, it’s important to be on the same page. Here are some things to remember when that day comes.

The Dangers of Assumptions

One of the first rules to follow for any relationship is to avoid making assumptions. This can make an enormous difference when dealing with siblings and planning out care for your elderly parents. Don’t assume that one person will handle finances while another will handle physical care, or yet another will have the freedom to drive your parents to and from appointments. Don’t assume that just because one sibling isn’t working right now, they have all the time in the world to take on the lion’s share of the caregiving. Instead, jointly decide and define what each person can and will do. Sit down as a family and discuss the situation with honesty and openness until agreements are made and understood.

Break Free of the Old Family Roles

In every family, there are siblings who fill certain roles. There might be the responsible one, the flighty one, the stern one, or the playful one. But just because the older sister is the one everyone looked to as a kid to soothe all the troubles doesn’t mean that the same sister should be responsible for everything concerning the parents’ care. At the same time, the rebel of the family shouldn’t be seen as the one who will be useless at caregiving, as they might turn out to have more patience than anyone in the family imagined they would.

If you find yourself being pushed into old roles that just don’t fit you anymore, speak up. And remember that the same thing could be happening to your siblings. Is that flighty one now incredibly responsible? Look at their attitude and personality now and how they treat and interact with your parents, and adjust your ideas of them accordingly.

Explore Strengths and Weaknesses

This is an honest assessment among siblings as a family. Who is really good at what – and who really isn’t? For example, there might be a sibling who is excellent with numbers, while another can barely balance a checkbook but can understand every bit of medical jargon. Maybe one person is exceptionally good with technology while another is incredibly capable with fixing things around the house. Find what each person is really good at and use those strengths to help determine what they might be able to do to help out with family caregiving responsibilities.

When trying to figure out sharing those responsibilities, it can be helpful to create a checklist that spells out everything your parents might need.

Share All the Information

Again, don’t make assumptions when it comes to your parents. Instead, get a professional assessment. Talk to their doctors to find out what’s really going on with them. Learn what care they really need.

For instance, your father might feel as though his biggest issue is diminished hearing, but the doctor might believe it’s his risk of falling. In that case, sharing the information allows you to come together as a family unit and provide your parent with an Alert1 Medical Alert with fall detection that can make life feel much safer.

Bring all the information you have to the table. Sharing everything, from how the finances look to the potential aging in place solutions your parents need, can help the family determine what to do next.

This sharing of information can bring some challenges of its own. You might find that some siblings are floored by the fact that their parents need so much care; this might be especially the case if they are living long-distance and unaware of the day-to-day care necessary to keep a loved one comfortable at home. Give them some time to adjust to the idea.

Reach Out to a Professional

Never hesitate to reach out for professional help. Studies have found that caregivers see a decrease in emotional stress when they work with a professional counselor[5]. Talking with a counselor as a group can allow you to air concerns in a neutral atmosphere with someone there to serve as a “referee” if things get rough. This professional can facilitate a plan to figure out how to evenly distribute the burden of caregiving among siblings. These meetings can also provide powerful tools on how to better communicate and “fight fair.”

Get Specific with Needs

“But I shouldn’t have to ask. It’s clear that I need someone to help me out!” Many primary caregivers fall into the trap of believing someone should see the stress they are under and step up to help. But sometimes what seems perfectly obvious to one person isn’t clear at all to those around them. That’s why it’s so important to make needs known through clear communication.

If a primary caregiver needs help from a sibling (or anyone else), they must ask! But don’t just say “I need help.” Instead, be specific. “I’m overwhelmed and need some help with mom and dad. Could you drive mom to her doctor’s appointment?”

Interestingly, studies have found that often a primary caregiver will actually discourage siblings from offering help[6]. This happens when a caregiver believes they are the only ones competent enough to provide the care their parent requires. It’s a dangerous trap to fall into, especially since it often leads to those caregivers feeling more stressed than they should be.

Turn to Technology

In addition to doing what it takes to make your elderly parent safe – including aging in place home modifications and investing in a medical alert system with fall detection – you can also use technology to keep in touch with siblings and share the information necessary to make the proper decisions on how to care for your parents.

Virtual family meetings via Zoom or FaceTime can work wonders to bring you closer together and make decisions in real time.

Sometimes Only One Person Can Do It

While family caregiving duties can often be divided among siblings, remember that there are some issues that only one person can handle – quite literally. The American Bar Association points out that in most cases, only one person can be named a healthcare proxy or financial power of attorney. Who will do it? Your parents might choose one sibling, which can make the others feel slighted. But remember that choosing one person isn’t a preference, but a requirement.

When this happens, remember that it was your parents – not a sibling – who made the choice on what to do with their money and who to trust with their healthcare decisions. Abide by their wishes and work within the framework they put into place.

Consider the Value of Emotional Support

Perhaps one sibling lives far away and can’t be there for the day-to-day help that your parents might need. That person might wind up providing priceless help through emotional support. Simply talking through a problem or even landing on a solution together, such as choosing the best medical alert device for your parents, can make siblings feel closer and alleviate some stress.

Also consider that parents might be more inclined to listen to a unified front. For instance, when selecting an emergency response solution, presenting the idea to them with the backing of your siblings may be quite effective in getting them the help they need.

As always, Alert1 wishes all family caregivers and their aging parents an abundance of health and safety!