Aging Parents and Adult Siblings: Mistakes Adult Siblings Make

Family caregiving can bring up conflicts. For many caregivers, it can be frustrating and stressful to work with siblings to care for aging, sick or dying parents. Or, to work with family to care for a spouse or other relative. There’s a lot to navigate – past conflicts, clashing personalities, tough decisions, and unequal contributions.

Below are some common “do’s” and “don’ts”, followed by some helpful suggestions.

1.  DON’T think that "if my sibling is doing the parent care, I'm off the hook"

Although it's rare for siblings to share parent care equally, it's a family responsibility. Even if you live far away from your ailing parent, you can still help out. You can call your mom more often so she feels supported, pay bills online, and help with anything requiring telephone calls or the Internet. Taking on small tasks can provide relief to the sibling carrying the heaviest load. You can also offer to schedule a visit with your parent and give your caregiving sibling some time off.

2. DO give appreciation and emotional support to the main caregiver

Many caregivers complain that their siblings criticize what they do. However, research suggests that emotional support is the most crucial factor to a caregiver's well-being. If you do have a legitimate concern, state it delicately, to avoid its being interpreted negatively. Caregivers want to be in it together; they don't want to be alone.

3. DON’T fall prey to the misconception that "I shouldn't have to ask"

If you're the one bearing the brunt of your parent's care, perhaps you've thought, “if my sister were a good person, she would offer to help me”. This is an unreasonable expectation. It assumes that all siblings should feel the same way about their parent, when really, each has a unique relationship with that parent and had a different role in the family growing up.

4. DON’T assume that your siblings are the same people they were as kids

Approach your siblings as adults—their reactions could surprise you. After all, you’re no longer the same person you were in childhood. Before making any assumptions, allow them an opportunity to show you their adult personality.

Along this same line is reverting to childhood roles. The big sister who always took care of everything may take on the bulk of the responsibility, while her little brother, out of habit, may let her do so unquestioningly. Beware of that magnet pulling you back to childhood.

5. DO plan for tough realities ahead

End-of-life care is something that few people like to think about, let alone discuss. Avoiding the subject until it's unavoidable, however, can be a huge mistake with devastating consequences for the sibling relationship. Call a family meeting when your parents are still healthy. You might start the conversation about advanced care planning like this: Remember uncle so-and-so, and how the kids were still fighting when he was on the respirator and they wouldn't let him die? That was so painful for everyone. We don't want that to happen in our family. Mom, Dad, do you have a living will? Have you assigned somebody to be the healthcare proxy? If you were on a respirator or in really bad shape, would you want us to do everything possible, or would you just want to go quietly? Who should make that decision? We'll all want to do what's right, but we may have different feelings.”

When the whole family hears your parents’ wishes straight from their mouths, it’s easier to be on the same page when the time comes to carry out those wishes.

6. DON’T think that everyone mourns in the same way

Your parent's death has your sister coursing with emotion, yet your brother doesn't seem fazed. That does not mean he doesn't care. Research suggests that there are gender differences with respect to mourning. In general, men tend to be much more private in their grief. Women, on the other hand, tend to want to talk about it and have public ceremonies. And, drinking or acting out may be how some people mourn. Don't expect everyone to have the same feelings, the same willingness to talk about what happened, the same responses to important days, like an anniversary, or a birthday. Honor and respect the manner in which people process their grief.

Adapted from They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy (Bantam, 2010), Francine Russo