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The Life Transition Blog

Sibling Challenges When Caring For Your Aging Parents


If we're honest with ourselves, we can remember back to a time when we and our siblings were all living at home and we settled into certain patterns within our families. For example, in a family of three brothers, there was the elder who had his act together, the middle one who was the clown, and the youngest who was Mom's favorite. Does it surprise you when forty years later, these three brothers are dealing with their aging mother and the same patterns play out? The oldest brother, the "responsible" one, takes charge of the nuts and bolts, and at some point he probably feels put upon because his siblings aren't helping enough. The middle brother is always there for the fun and happy times, but he seems to disappear when the going gets tough. He might feel that he's not in the loop. And the baby, Mom's favorite, announces that he is coming to visit and Mom talks about nothing else for weeks before and after. It's likely that he's oblivious that both of his brothers are annoyed with him. This is an example of siblings who, despite the adults they have become, revert to their childhood roles when confronting the aging of their parent.

In addition to historical family patterns, gender roles often come to the forefront in family caregiving situations. Why is it that women so often take on the caregiver role? Is it because they expect it of themselves, or because their families expect it of them? Is there truth to the old saying that, "a daughter is a daughter for life, but a son's a son until he takes a wife?" Is it because caregiving is often still considered to be "women's work"? While there are certainly many families where men play leading and significant roles in the care of their parents, many surveys show that sons most often write checks while daughters (and daughters-in-law) provide more of the hands on caregiving. Whatever might be the situation in your family, it helps to be aware of gender roles, and think about whether you are falling into default positions or really are sharing the load.

Proximity and distance also become factors in the family caregiving dynamic. In many families, one sibling lives near their parents, while others don't. The one who is close by will tend to see the parents more often and may not notice subtle changes in a parent's ability or behavior. Then, one of the out-of-towners comes for a visit and begins pointing these things out. If not handled with care, the in-town sibling might take this personally, thinking that the sibling is saying that he or she isn't doing a good enough job of looking after Mom and Dad. At the same time, the distant siblings might take it for granted that their in-town brother or sister is both expecting and willing to take on the caregiver role, leaving that caregiver by default to feel taken advantage of.

Complicating the family dynamic, each of us has different needs. We all know someone who needs to be needed. This person will often have great difficulty when their caregiver role naturally comes to an end. What about the person who needs to fight fires, and who might even set a few in order to be able to save the day? Without even realizing it, this person might make the caregiving more complicated than it needs to be. Do you know someone who needs to be seen as the big spender? This person is likely to feel that money is the answer to every caregiving challenge, and will look for opportunities to show how generous she is. When that generosity isn't acknowledged, she's likely to get angry. Finally, do you know anyone who has a need to be the "good" son? This person will take actions based on how they appear to others, and will look down on his siblings who aren't as "good" as he is.

Money, competing responsibilities, and disparate skills rear their heads as well. It is all too easy for families to fall into roles when they don't take the time to discuss these things out loud. The best family caregiving situations arise when everyone is working together. There can be a role for everyone, even those who live far away. All it takes is some good ongoing communication and a plan. If you're not sure how to get started, you might consider hiring a family transition coach to help. As an objective third party, your coach can help provide focus and will have experience with others who have going through similar transitions so that you don't have to start from scratch. In addition, a family transition coach will be knowledgeable about the many resources that are available to you and can facilitate necessary but difficult conversations and decisions. If you can anticipate the challenges you may face with your siblings in these circumstances it is likely that you can avoid some of the pitfalls.
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