Talking with Siblings About Your Aging Parent
Common sources of conflict and how to have a conversation around resolving them.
Caregiving is a stressful experience. As we watch our parents age, it can trigger emotional reactions. It’s painful to see your aging loved one needing help.
Getting your parent the care they need requires the entire family system, including other siblings if you have them, to gather all their resources. An essential part of organizing all the necessities is communication. Without that communication, getting everything together can be really difficult.
As a resident support advisor at NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, MA, I am very familiar with how family dynamics come to bear for many adult children as they help their parents make decisions about their care needs. The patterns of interactions and relationships between the members of a family play out across all aspects of the caregiving process.
I’d like to share some common themes we see in family dynamics, communication tips to have those necessary and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, and resources for when you need more support.
7 common family dynamics
While each family’s situation is unique, there are several common themes I see in the families I work with. Understanding the root cause of challenging family dynamics is the first step toward improving your relationships.
Often the responsibility of caregiving falls on the family member who lives the closest to their parents. This logistical reality may cause the local adult child to resent siblings who live further away, while the siblings who aren’t as involved may feel uninformed and left out.
Unequal balance of responsibility
Even if more than one adult child lives close to their parents, there is usually one child who does more. This could be due to a variety of factors, including family and work responsibilities or long-standing roles and relationships in the family.
Social and cultural norms may also contribute to this imbalance in care. In many families, the son is spared the responsibility of caregiving, leaving the daughter to take on more. There’s often an unspoken expectation of females to be the caregivers, reinforcing historical stereotypes around gender roles.
The family member who is taking on the bulk of the caregiving responsibilities might receive advice from other family members whether it’s welcome or not.
Sometimes, a sibling who lives out of state will come for a short visit and want to make changes in how the local sibling has been doing things. The main caregiver might not appreciate hearing ideas from someone who isn’t there all the time, and it may be heard as criticism instead.
Every family has factions of influence and sources of friction. There are bound to be differences of opinions among adult children regarding what their parent needs and how to best provide it.
One reason having conversations can be challenging is that some families aren’t in the habit of expressing themselves to each other, especially with sensitive issues. Open communication may not have been encouraged, and respectfully voicing opinions was not practiced. Furthermore, some families are not very close or have long-standing conflicts.
Resurfacing old triggers
Family dynamics can cause us to default to “assigned” roles and old patterns, bringing unresolved tensions to the surface. As an adult, you may want to break out of these old roles, such as a middle child who always mediated between siblings. Especially in stressful situations, people can default to what is familiar so they might have certain expectations of your behavior.
However, just because it’s “always been that way” doesn’t mean it’s healthy or productive. Changing the ways you relate to family or how they relate to you while you’re navigating the stress of caregiving for a parent is a challenging task to take on. Having an honest and open conversation is the best way to address that challenge.
It can feel like a big blow to your parent’s pride and sense of independence when they need help doing everyday things. It can be especially difficult considering that you and your siblings are now providing care in some of the same ways your parent cared for you.
Caregivers don’t live in a bubble. In addition to caring for your parent, you may also feel stress from other areas of your life, such as work, finances, and marriage—not to mention if you are caring for children of your own. Being sandwiched between taking care of your parent’s needs as well as your childrens’ means finding balance is even more difficult, but doing so is crucial to fulfilling responsibilities.
5 tips for talking with siblings about senior care
So now that we’ve outlined some common areas of conflict, what can you do about it? Given the importance of communication, you need to have conversations with your family members. Apprehension is understandable, but these tips can help keep the conversation from turning into an argument.
When to have the conversation
First and foremost, having conversations proactively can curb some conflict. Everything is harder when families are in crisis mode. When a decision is needed now, it’s hard to have a discussion, so it’s best to plan ahead.
That said, it’s also very important to pick the right time to have a conversation. Being in a good head space is important for everyone involved. Don’t try to force a conversation if someone is just getting home and is running around trying to get organized. Make sure everyone has some energy and time to focus.
Finding common ground and a common goal
Start by simply stating the truth to create some common ground. As a family, you all care about your parent and want what’s best for them. Try to set a tone of acceptance, collaboration, and equality. You are all in this together. If you and your siblings can agree on some shared feelings at the start, you may be more open to hearing from each other about the decisions that need to be made and even compromising where it’s needed.
Saying something out loud can have a surprisingly powerful effect. Expressing your fears and concerns helps dissipate some of the intensity of those emotions. Such openness can encourage others to join the conversation as well. Sometimes it’s a matter of breaking that surface tension to start a flow of communication.
For instance, you can say, “I know we disagree about what our parent needs right now, and I’d really like us to agree somehow. This is hard for me to say because we’re not used to talking this way. And I think talking it through might help. Is this hard for you too?”
After finding common ground you can pivot to creating a common goal. Perhaps your mom or dad is feeling isolated and wants to socialize more. Once that goal is defined you can work on solutions. Make sure the goal is something that your parent wants, not what you think they want. After all, your loved one is who it’s all about!
Once you and your family can agree on a goal you can say something like, “It sounds like we’re on the same page about us wanting to support our parent in what matters most to them. I’d like to explore other living options where they have more opportunities to be around others, even if it means they move out of their home. We would still be supporting them in their goal of socializing more. But we’re including ideas we haven’t explored before.”
By including new ideas you’re recognizing that everyone brings different solutions to the table, and there’s usually no one way to reach a goal. If you explore different options of how to achieve that goal, you might be more successful in coming to an agreement.
If it’s not easy to be in touch or relations are such that being in regular contact is just not an option, see if you can come to agreement on the most important matters pertaining to your parent, like health care decisions or other legal matters.
Make a specific request
If you’re the primary caregiver, don’t assume that your sibling knows what you need and they’re just not doing it. You may have a sibling who doesn’t know what to do to help you, and therefore they do nothing. They may be waiting for you to approach them because they don’t know how to ask if you need help.
Be specific about what’s needed. The importance of a clear request cannot be overstated. Setting expectations can make everything run smoother.
Keep in mind that it’s rare to have the responsibilities of care distributed equally across all members of the family. There should be a focus on practicality. Each family member brings unique skills so matching responsibilities with those skills makes sense.
For instance, one sibling may be able to help more with financial needs or manage finances from a distance, while another may have a more flexible schedule to help with daytime appointments. In turn, each family member can feel good about the contributions they’re making to the well-being of both the parent and the family system.
Given the complicated feelings and topics in play, it may require several conversations about the same thing for forward movement to happen. Everyone processes information differently and it might take some time to get used to the idea of making necessary life changes. Remember to try to be patient.
A useful tip is setting up agreed-upon times to check in. It’s a good way to stay in touch, keep up to date, and reduce the risk of misunderstandings. Regular check-ins also provide an opportunity to adjust the caregiving plan as needed and negotiate areas of care. Maybe one family member has gotten busier while another has more free time. When you’re in better communication it may be a bit easier to navigate times of crisis as you’ve already been on the same page by keeping in regular contact.
Be kind to yourself
It’s not always going to work as you planned and that doesn’t mean that your family failed. There’s no guarantee that every suggestion is going to work. No one can expect themselves or others to be experts in navigating this journey. You may know your family very well, but the situations and emotions you’re faced with are probably new. Allow yourself some grace to accept things as they are, and keep moving forward.
Whenever you’re in doubt or if you feel guilty about not doing enough, it’s important to remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can and that is all anyone can ask. Don’t forget to care for yourself when you’re caring for others. Read more about how to avoid caregiver burnout.
Sources for more support
Sometimes we need additional resources to help guide the communication process or provide services agreed upon during the conversation. Here are a few different specialists to look for.
Aging Life Care Manager
Also known as geriatric care managers, they offer personalized services to maximize independence for older adults. Aging life care managers can keep track of medical appointments, provide transportation, help access resources such as home health aides, and can even sit in on discussions with members of your parent’s medical team and relay that information to the family members afterward. Unfortunately, geriatric care managers don’t take insurance but some agencies offer a reduced fee based on income.
Though they are often associated with law offices, some professionals specialize in family mediation. You may get to a point where you can’t move forward with your family without the help of a professional who can help facilitate conversations and mediate them to find some common ground. This is an out-of-pocket expense.
Organizers are especially useful if you’re starting the process of downsizing your loved one. They can declutter and cut through all the belongings we tend to accumulate. Professional organizers can also help set up systems to keep track of monthly bill payments. They are also paid for out of pocket.
Money can be a great source of strain in relationships. An outside financial advisor or manager can help handle your loved one’s finances, and mediate the stress of financial responsibility.
Local community organizations
If you need support to care for your loved one, particularly if there are financial constraints, local organizations can help you access benefits that you may not know your parent is entitled to.
One of the first places to contact in Massachusetts is your local Aging Services Access Point. ASAPs are nonprofit organizations that receive state funding to connect seniors with services. They offer many services that are free or reduced cost for those who are eligible. Find your local ASAP.
Another great way to start is to contact the senior center or Council on Aging in your parent’s town.
Bolstering your support network
It might get to the point where you need reinforcements in providing care for your loved one.
Senior living communities like Hebrew SeniorLife’s NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham and Orchard Cove in Canton offer a professional support system. These communities tend to solve many of the logistical issues that come with coordinating care across the family network, taking a lot of stress out of providing care. NewBridge, Orchard Cove, and all Hebrew SeniorLife’s communities have social workers like me on staff to help your parent access what they need to thrive, in addition to a variety of programming and amenities to support wellness and life-long learning.
Senior living communities offer as much independence as your parent wants and needs - while we’re there as a support, they are free to make their own choices about how they live and the resources they want to take advantage of. NewBridge and Orchard Cove offer multiple levels of care, including independent living, assisted living, and long-term care.
Looking to explore living options for your loved one? Explore Hebrew SeniorLife's options or contact us for more information.
This content was adapted from Hebrew SeniorLife’s podcast, There for Them.
Listen to Hebrew SeniorLife's podcasts about different ways you can help your parents age safely ... and well.
Hebrew SeniorLife offers a variety of senior living options, including independent living, assisted living, and enhanced living. There are options for every lifestyle and budget.