Liz O’Donnell’s parents were both diagnosed with terminal illnesses—on the same day in different hospitals. She became their primary caregiver, even though she was the youngest of three and had a full-time job and two young children. She lived the closest, so it made sense, but it still didn’t feel fair. After a series of ER visits, O’Donnell came home to find a bouquet of flowers from her sisters. “I don’t need flowers,” she thought. “I need help!”
On the surface, having siblings might seem like it would make caregiving easier—more people to divvy up responsibilities. But sometimes throwing siblings into the mix makes everything more complex.
To ensure that your siblings can be some of the most valuable players on your caregiving team, start the conversations early in the process—and keep the communication lines open throughout.
These expert tips and real-life lessons from caregivers can help siblings overcome communication difficulties, adapt family roles and resolve issues while caring for their parents.
Have a Family Meeting to Talk Caregiving Responsibilities
Caregiving shouldn’t always fall to the sibling who lives the closest to the parent, the one who doesn’t work full time or the oldest daughter. To determine who provides care and in what way, have a family meeting to give everyone—including your parents—a chance to discuss and resolve the tough issues before damaging conflicts erupt. “Family meetings provide the forum for all to be heard, share their views and learn from each other,” says Crystal Thorpe, a mediator with Elder Decisions and co-author of “Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles & Eldercare Crises.”
Accept Your Siblings for Who They Are
Sibling dynamics start early and don’t always change in adulthood. Although you and your siblings have grown personally and professionally, it’s easy to revert back to old patterns, roles and rivalries. But this is not the time to try to change who your siblings are. “I spent a few weeks wishing my sisters would do things differently,” O’Donnell says. “But they are who they are, and I’m sure they wished I wasn’t so bossy.”
So play to one another’s strengths. When Dana Hutson’s father became ill, she tended to his medical needs and her brother took on the role of administrator, which made sense given their individual strengths: She works in health care as a private patient advocate, and he is a chief financial officer. “We jokingly say that I am health and human services and he is the operations guy,” Hutson says.
Ask for Help Directly and Specifically
If you’re the one bearing the brunt of your parents’ care, the stress of caregiving can take a toll on your health, relationships and state of mind. “What I’ve found is a lot of siblings tend to complain rather than ask specifically for what they need,” says Joy Loverde, author of “Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?”
Many times, the sibling who lives far away doesn’t know how to help, but long-distance caregivers can provide care in many different ways, from offering emotional support and providing respite to the local caregiver to handling legal matters and writing checks. “My sister who lived out of state called my mother and gabbed every night,” O’Donnell says. “I was never that daughter. She was the feelings person, and I was the to-do list person.
And when siblings do offer help, they might not do it the way you would, but let them do it their way. “Don’t be a helicopter sibling,” Loverde says.
Build Consensus Rather Than Taking Votes
If you and your siblings disagree about the specifics of a care plan, take a step back and talk about what’s important to everybody.
“People so often go to solutions first,” Thorpe says. “Instead of focusing on your position—Mom must move in with me—think about what’s underneath that. It might be a value that Mom is surrounded by people who love her. Once everybody hears what’s important, then you can develop options that meet those interests.”
Bring in the Professionals
If you and your siblings never truly got along, and respectful, ongoing communication seems out of the question, consider holding a family meeting facilitated by an outside professional, such as a clergy member, mediator, trusted friend or social worker who specializes in family relationships.
“Eldercare is really a matter of knowing the questions to ask, not being afraid to initiate the tough conversations and getting advice from professionals,” Loverde says. “If you plan ahead, everything may go much smoother.”