The Sibling Problem in Caregiving

By Nancy Wurtzel

Few roles are as stressful for adult children as caregiving for their aging parents.  The caregiving often begins slowly with a few simple tasks needed on occasion.  However, as the parent ages and their needs change, the once sporadic duties may develop into a full-time commitment.

Long-term caregiving for mom or dad works best when siblings divvy up responsibilities, so one person isn’t going it alone. Some siblings, for example, may be great with providing hands-on care while other siblings are more comfortable taking over the shopping, housework, errands or cooking.

While it seems fair that all siblings contribute equally, this isn’t always the case. Frequently, the bulk of elder care falls on one or two adult children and women still shoulder the majority of caregiving duties.  The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that 66 percent of caregivers are female and that females will spend as much as 50 percent more time caregiving than their male counterparts.

Location can also play a role in providing care.  Siblings who live nearest their parents are generally expected to assume more caregiving duties than those who live further away.

However, proximity doesn’t have to be a barrier to caregiving participation.

Haralee Weintraub, a women’s sleepwear entrepreneur, and her older sister Toba have established a way for both to share responsibilities for their elderly mom, even though one daughter is close by and the other lives 3,000 miles away.

Toba lives in Rhode Island and is a 45-minute-drive from their mother, so she visits frequently and is the on point person.

Haralee, who resides in Portland, Oregon, handles everything that can be accomplished from a distance, such as her mother’s finances, online purchases and phone calls.  Several times a year, Haralee visits and the sisters’ schedule a joint meeting with the staff at their mother’s nursing home.

“We have both seen friends come to odds with siblings who choose different options for their parents,” said Haralee.  “We realize how lucky we are to have each other and to be exactly on the same page regarding our Mother’s care.”

Haralee’s and Toba’s story is an example of how caregiving can foster and strengthen sibling relationships, even when the siblings live far apart.

Not every family is this lucky.

Some siblings choose to do very little or not participate in the care of their parents.  On the flip side, one sibling may take over the caretaking and not allow their brothers and sisters to participate.

This happened to Laura, a 60-year-old writer who lives in Colorado.

Laura’s older sister, who she describes as “very bossy,” has assumed total responsibility for their frail, elderly parents who are both in the mid-80s.  As the oldest child in the family, the sister makes all decisions about their care and finances, effectively cutting Laura out of their lives.

“My sister has worked in long-term care and believes she is the expert in our family,” Laura said.  “She won’t share information about my parents and it’s created a deep rift between us.”

Laura’s story may not be that common, but siblings can often have very different perceptions of what is needed and necessary for their aging mom and dad.

For example, siblings who see their parents frequently might be more likely to describe the caregiving situation as dire.  Those who live far away and visit only occasionally may not have a thorough understanding of their parents decline, causing these siblings to downplay problems.  Still other siblings, no matter where they live, prefer to be in denial about their parent’s capabilities, wanting instead to see mom or dad as their old selves.

Another highly contentious topic among sibling caretakers involves the cost of care.

Suzanna de Baca wrote on this subject for TIME magazine, “Keep in mind that everyone has different attitudes towards money and money habits. For example, one sibling may work to determine the most cost-effective way to help in caregiving duties while another may splurge on services that your parents don’t necessarily want or need.”

Money – the lack of it or how to best manage available funds — is a caregiving hot-button.  It’s so hot it can strain even the best sibling relationships.

When financial or other issues are creating serious dissension among sibling caregivers, it may be time for an impartial, third-party intervention by a social worker or care advisor.

A mediator doesn’t carry the baggage that exists between adult siblings and doesn’t pass judgment.  He or she will assess the situation without bias and then help negotiate thorny issues, improve communication, foster respect and establish a plan for how to move forward.

To find an elder mediator close to you, contact your local Department of Aging or visit websites like Mediate, Eldercare Mediators, or Association for Conflict Resolution.

In short, a mediator paves the way for adult siblings to find common ground so they can make the well-being of their parent the top priority.

Nancy Wurtzel, a frequent contributor to ThirdAge, is the editor of the blog

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