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Family Fracas: When Taking Care of a Parent Causes Grief Between Siblings

November is National Family Caregivers Month. In recognition, we are reposting this November 2015 article in which the author offers valuable information on how children of a parent who requires a great deal of care can contribute even if not in the same city and support each other.

Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

The widowed matriarch of the Carter* family, who suffered a stroke in early 2015, now requires a significant amount of care.  In consulting with them, I found them discussing the “pros” and “cons” of various long-term care options.  Immediately, it became obvious that the “real” issue wasn’t lack of information but family history and dynamics; the siblings, all good and well-intentioned people, were not able agree on much of anything and, therefore, weren’t moving forward.

They were too busy arguing and resenting each other to come to consensus regarding their mom’s care.  As a result, decisions were either delayed or not made.  Essentially, their mother’s care become hostage to their sibling drama.   Normally, in situations like this, it’s not about “good” or “bad” people; it’s usually more about perspective.

There are two sons and an older daughter (from their mother’s first marriage).  They all love and care for their mom, who has some assets but is not wealthy.  Unfortunately, their mom never communicated (either verbally or in writing) what type of care she would want if she were ever not able to communicate for herself.

This is where the arguments began.

Eric, the middle child, lives in New Jersey, five minutes from mom’s house. He works on weekends but has the flexibility to go back and forth.  Karl, the youngest child, is a single professional who lives in New York and is just starting his career.  Bobbi, the oldest sibling, lives in another state with her family.  Again, all three very much care for their mother but have slightly different relationships with her and very different perspectives based upon what’s going on in their own lives.

In eldercare, it’s typical for 95 percent of the caregiving efforts to be provided by one person. Eric, because of close physical proximity, had traditionally been responsible for their mom but since the stroke has become overwhelmed and resentful of his siblings’ lack of assistance.

Karl is focused on his career and works long hours. This creates tension between the two brothers because Eric feels that Karl should dedicate more time to helping with their mom.  Karl tries to visit/help on weekends but lives an hour away, often works at least one day on the weekend and doesn’t fully appreciate Eric’s workload. The way he sees it, Eric lives five minutes away and only has a part-time job and, consequently, can easily be available when their mother needs something.

Then factor in Bobbie, who only sees their mom about once a year.  Because she’s the oldest by several years, growing up she was often left “in charge.”  Now, years later, she still believes her brothers should listen to her on important matters.  Although they both respect and love their sister, both Eric and Karl feel that since Bobbi is not involved in the caregiving and only sees their mother once a year, she is too far removed from the situation to call the shots.  Again, each of the siblings loves the other, loves Mom and wants the best for her. But love is not the issue.  To avoid arguments, they’d mostly stopped sharing their feelings and this allowed tensions to build.

Communication is usually the key minimizing or eliminating family issues.  First, a large part of the situation was caused by their mom never communicating what she wanted for her own care.  Then, each of the siblings had their opinions based at least partially on their individual situations.  Unfortunately, none of them realized or communicated that their own perspectives played a role in what they thought and how they viewed each other.

In the case of the brothers, while loving, they are very different –as evidenced by their life choices.  From childhood, they saw the world differently.  Previously, they agreed to disagree; now as they needed to care for their mother it became obvious that not only did they not agree with each other’s lifestyles, but they also they didn’t respect the others choice about what was most important, work or family.  Bobbi had the least contact with their mom because of geography (and some unresolved issues).  Since childhood, she had been accustomed to having the final word between the siblings, and this was especially true on important matters.

Eldercare-related matters can often be stressful and require dynamic decision making with incomplete information.  In times like these, some individuals revert back into old patterns of behavior through habit.

After consulting with the family, we were pretty quickly able to resolve their issues once they were identified.  Mostly, it came down to frequent, clear and honest communication with the focus always being on what care was best for their mom.

So how did they solve a problem that has a tendency to break families apart and cause strained relationships and avoidable stress?

What it took was some really honest interaction between the siblings. After getting an understanding of their individual situations, they first agreed to do what was best for their mother and not most convenient for themselves.

They then instituted frequent conference calls so everyone had the same information at the same time and no one was ever excluded from a conversation. They also began sharing tasks based upon ability to resolve the issue.

For example, Karl now handles anything having to do with insurance, or paperwork, etc., and comes over at least two weekends per month; Bobbi handles most things that can be done via phone or internet like orders groceries, pays bills, schedules appointments; meanwhile Eric still handles most of the day-to-day tasks but now has significantly more time because his siblings are now actively involved.

Opening the lines of communication and getting everyone actively involved reduced tensions, made everyone feel like they were contributing, and helped each sibling develop an appreciation for the other’s perspective.   As result the siblings are becoming even closer while bonding over mom’s care.   Additionally, mom now has three caregivers focused on making sure she receives all the care and services she needs.

Relationships just are the way they are.  The simple truth is that some of these issues can be resolved and others can’t.  No matter which category you and your family fall into what’s most important is that the focus remain on getting and maintaining the best possible care for your loved one.

*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.

Derrick Y. McDaniel is the author of Eldercare: The Esssential Guide to Caring for Your Loved One and Yourself and founder of Caring Hearts Homecare of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @MrElderCare101.

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