We Are All In This Together: How To Encourage Sibling Help

by Thalia Anderen, LCSW

I recently had a client in my office discussing her frustration over her older sister’s lack of involvement in their aging father’s care. In her mind, siblings are all supposed to pull together to help with their parents in their later years. Unfortunately, in my experience, I’ve found that no matter how many siblings one has, there is always one who picks up the slack.

Providing care to aging parents can be complicated. These days, people are living much longer, which means care in their later years generally falls to their adult children. However, as many adult children no longer live near their parents, the requirements of daily care, along with work and family demands of their own, can lead to considerable stress and conflict.

Many decisions need to be made, including who will transport their parent(s) to appointments, who will take care of cleaning, shopping and other forms of household maintenance, whether to bring in nursing care, and who will finance these various expenses. For some families, these roles and decisions are made easily and siblings can be incredibly cooperative. However, for many families, it is not uncommon for friction to arise.

Caring for an aging or ailing parent can bring out the best and worst in sibling relationships. Adult children tend to slip back into old roles which can bring up past resentments and anger. Oftentimes siblings are in denial about their parent’s condition and/or have different ideas about what their parents need. However, most of the conflict stems from who will assume the caregiving duties. Despite these challenges, there are several ways to cope with the demands of caring for an aging parent:

  • Express your feelings openly and honestly in ways your siblings will be able to hear — Be direct about what you need. Expecting them to know what you’re thinking will only lead to misinterpretation and resentment. And remember, HOW you say something can be more important than WHAT you say!
  • Keep family members in the loop — It is important to hold regular family meetings, whether in person or by email or phone, to continually re-examine what duties are needed. Keep each other informed about all issues including the parent’s condition, upcoming medical appointments, costs, etc. This helps to avoid one person’s taking on the bulk of the duties.
  • Allow siblings to help in ways in which they are able — While many siblings may be far away geographically or may not have much free time, identify the things they CAN do, rather than focusing on what they can’t. Some siblings may be more adept at handling legal or financial aspects of care, while others may be more available to help with handling errands and appointments. Sometimes emotional support can be just as helpful as physical help!
  • Be realistic in your expectations — Again, focus on sibling strengths and skills. Take into consideration their own health, family and work commitments, geographical distance, etc. Accept your siblings for whom they are. Trying to change them into what you want them to be will only lead to frustration and resentment. Always be willing to negotiate.
  • Express appreciation for the help siblings do provide — People are more likely to continue helping when they feel appreciated.
  • Seek help from community resources — There are numerous resources in the community that provide help — support groups, human services agencies, religious organizations, and eldercare services. Friends and other family members are also a significant support resource. Don’t be shy about asking them for help.

And perhaps the most important reminder: Take care of YOU! Just because you are caring for someone else does not mean you should neglect yourself. Make time to do something you enjoy every day. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally will help give you the strength to care for someone else.

Thalia Anderen, LCSW, is the Clinical Supervisor at Family Centers/The Center For Hope, a private, non-profit organization offering education and human services to children, adults and families living in Lower Fairfield County, CT.

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