How To Manage Sibling Rivalry While Caring For Aging Parents
What to do when compassion and chaos collide
Families have been caring for their aging parents for generations. And while many people view this duty as an honour, some see it as a hassle. Especially when their siblings don’t pitch in to help.
Things have changed dramatically over the centuries. In days gone by, family units were close, both in proximity and in perception. It was natural—and expected—for elders to receive medical, financial, and social care from their adult children. But time has transformed that perspective.
What’s different now?
So much has changed in North American culture. For one thing, we have a longer life span. According to Statistics Canada, the average life expectancy of a Canadian in 1921 was 59.7 years. By 2031 it’s projected to reach 83.9 years. And according to Canada.ca, by 2030 one in four Canadians will be a senior citizen, up from one in seven in 2012.
The ramifications of this projected longevity means that many of us will require assistance in unison with our parents. Two age groups will need family support at the same time.
But before we even get to the point of needing help, an entire generation is going to be retiring. And with retirement comes opportunities like travel and leisure. Not only that, but our own aging naturally leads to illness and injury. The fact is, our medical challenges may render us incapable of helping our parents. Who’s going to take care of Mom and Dad?
The other change is that we’re more spread apart than we were in days past. It used to be that most people would rear their young families in or near the same city, town, or region they themselves grew up in. Not anymore. Many of us live counties, if not continents away. And because children are living at home longer (more than one in three young adults aged 20 to 34 were living with at least one parent in 2016, according to Statistics Canada), we’re taking care of our kids at the same time our parents need us to take care of them. Talk about a sandwich!
The challenges of caring for aging parents
Adult children face many hurdles when it comes to helping parents in need, including financial trials, geographic obstacles, a tumultuous history, and emotional exhaustion. But one of the biggest challenges is sibling rivalry.
Old habits die hard, as they say. Behaviours and hierarchies from childhood can carry through our adult lives, especially within the relationships we have with our brothers and sisters. For example, the baby of a family might become the parents’ nurturer in adulthood, while the eldest child, who left the nest first, may simply have distanced themselves from the day-to-day dynamics.
It’s important to keep in mind that every member of a family has a one-of-a-kind child/parent relationship. Dad and daughter may get along swimmingly, but son and mom may come to loggerheads at every turn. We also have to acknowledge that each child has a unique inter-sibling connection. Our childhood conduct, especially within the family structure, can carry through our lives. This is why things can go sideways when we’re caring for aging parents; we’re all approaching the same challenge from different perspectives.
The six sibling personality types
Most of us fall into one of six sibling personalities, which becomes evident—and oftentimes exaggerated—when we’re helping an aging parent. And those who are an only child, or the only one helping our parents, can cycle between these personality types on a regular basis. Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in these descriptions.
The Doer:This is the person who tends to organize and deploy their parent’s care plan. They’re the one driving their parent to appointments, shopping for things like food, clothing, and prescriptions, taking care of housekeeping and laundry duties, and overseeing medical, legal, and financial matters.
The Doubter:For a variety of reasons, the doubter doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with their aging parent. They may be in denial, left out of the loop, or they could simply be blissfully unaware of their parent’s decline.
The Dodger:Dodgers somehow manage to get out of pitching in on the regular. They’re either too busy to make a commitment, prone to cancelling at the last minute, or really good at avoiding responsibility all together.
The Dater:The dater arranges to help at their convenience rather than when they’re actually needed. Perhaps they live away and can only help out during vacation, or maybe they’ve worked out a mutually agreeable schedule with their parent, like calling every Sunday or visiting every birthday or holiday.
The Deserter:This is the sibling who is missing in action. There may have been a dispute or they may have simply moved on from the family. Either way, they’re unreachable.
The Doter:This is the sibling who is omnipresent. They talk to their parent ten times a day on the phone, stop in every time they drive by, or have their aging parent live with them. For many people, this is truly a blessing. For some, it’s a burden.
Clearly, these personae don’t always jibe. Put a Doer with a Doter and things will probably be fine, but add a Doubter to the mix and sparks can quickly fly.
Impacts of the uneven distribution of duties
When it comes to caring for aging parents, lopsided loadbearing can have a deep and lasting negative effect on sibling relationships. And keeping our frustrations, needs, and constraints to ourselves only makes things worse.
There are five common feelings that stew among siblings, and when they’re not dealt with they can lead to painful and permanent disharmony.
Guilt: One of the hardest emotions to handle is guilt. Some of us feel guilty because we live far away from our parents in need, some because our professional or personal commitments make it impossible to help as much as we’d like, and some because we simply don’t have what it takes to provide the level of care our parents require. Guilt only grows worse when a sibling accuses us of not contributing enough. It can be emotionally crippling.
Resentment: We can feel bitter towards our siblings, even if their reasons for not being available to help are completely logical. Perhaps they live elsewhere or are facing their own medical or financial challenges. Expecting them to uproot their lives to provide assistance is irrational, and that unrealistic belief can fester within.
Irritation: It’s easy to become exasperated by our siblings’ apparent apathy, and this frustration can come through in a variety of ways. From snide comments and a huffy attitude to avoiding our siblings all together, undiscussed irritation can burrow its way into the soul of our family relationships.
Exhaustion: Caring for our own lives can be hard enough; caring for one or two aging parents in addition can be brutal. If they have cognitive challenges as well as physical ones, we can wind up in a never-ending cycle of repetition and a constant state of vigilance. This level of overactivity can suck the life out of us, causing extreme fatigue and even illness. And it can be a hard pill to swallow, especially if a brother or sister isn’t present to provide relief.
Fear: Watching a parent age and require help can be scary. Anticipating the inevitable—their death—can be downright petrifying. A lack of moral support from our siblings or a gap in how we view the same eventuality can magnify our trepidations and lead to anxiety and upheaval.
How to manage it all
A common pitfall within families is what I call Caregiver By Default Syndrome, or CBDS for short. This occurs when a group of siblings presumes the sister with nursing experience is the best one to care for a parent or the brother who works from home has the most free time to help out. Avoid making these assumptions and talk over roles and responsibilities instead.
Communication among siblings is the key to successfully managing our aging parents’ needs. Here are four actions you can take to enhance your family relationships when caring for an aging parent.
Help: If one of your siblings has become the primary caregiver, don’t wait for them to ask for your help. Offer it. Be proactive when it comes to things like scheduling appointments, making meals, picking up supplies, shuttling to and from appointments, and planning special events. On the other hand, primarycaregivers can sometimes disguise themselves as heroes. Have you gotten used to throwing on a cape and becoming a force of nature by taking care of everything and everyone? For your own well-being, that needs to stop. It’s perfectly okay to ask a sibling to step in and help. You deserve some downtime like anyone else. Ask for it.
Empathize: You may not be able to be there as much as your siblings are, but you can still contribute in other ways. If you live afar or are unable to help in person, you can provide emotional support by staying in touch and offering emotional relief. Let your brothers and sisters know how much you appreciate all they do for your aging parent.
Listen: We can become very set in our ways as we age, leading us to do the same things the same way with the same results. Half of communicating is hearing what others have to say. Your sister may have a brilliant solution to a challenge you’re having with your dad, or you may be able to come up with a workaround that will help your brother better manage your mom’s care. You could be one conversation away from simplifying a complex problem.
Plan: Preparation is the key for siblings who want to successfully help an ailing parent. As soon as you see signs of increasing need, call a family meeting to discuss next steps. If possible, include your parent(s) in the discussion to ascertain what their preferences are. Technology makes it possible for everyone to join the conversation, which will empower you as a family to make a solid plan outlining roles, responsibilities, and results.
Accept: Reality can be a hard pill to swallow, but facts are facts. Sometimes the healthiest way to deal with sibling rivalry when caring for aging parents is to accept the fact that your sister doesn’t understand, your brother can’t deal with the stress of caregiving, or you’ll never be in a position to help out as often as you’d like.
Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter once said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.” May you always give and be granted care with grace, understanding, patience, and kindness.