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How to Handle Sibling Disagreement Over Elderly Parent Care

Caring for elderly parents can bring up a lot of confusing feelings for adult children.

On our best days, we find joy in taking care of the parents that took care of us for so many years. Then, there are days, more than we’d like, when caring for our parents is stressful and frustrating. To add to the complicated feelings, siblings often clash about how to best care for their parents.

Siblings can argue about a range of issues regarding the care of their parents. Arguments run the gamut of safety issues, how to address medical needs, finances, and who is responsible for different aspects of caregiving.

How do you get everyone on the same page and preserve family relationships?

Here are some suggestions that can help adult children navigate the tricky waters of caretaking for elderly parents.

Improve Communication

Conflict in human relationships is inevitable. We want different things at different times. That’s okay. In fact, it’s completely normal. How skillfully we communicate our different needs and wants determines the quality of our relationships. Here are a few tips to improve communication when it comes to how to care for your aging parents.

  • Use “I” Statements One of the best ways to diffuse conflict is to use “I” statements.

Instead of saying, “You leave me with all the responsibility, and it’s not fair,” try saying it a different way. “I feel overwhelmed with so many responsibilities. Can you help with (fill in the blank)?”

When you use “I” statements, the other person will feel less defensive and will be more able to hear what you have to say.

  • Recognize intent vs. impact When we say or do something that another person finds hurtful, we’re sometimes surprised. We didn’t intend to be hurtful, so we think we’re off the hook if they feel hurt. While we can’t control how others receive what we say, we can control how we respond to their reaction.

We could argue our point—and go around and around without getting anywhere. Or, we could simply acknowledge the impact of our actions and say those two magic words, “I’m sorry.” Apologizing goes a long way towards improving communication and relationships.

  • Be curious For more relationship magic, remind yourself to be curious the next time a conflict arises. Here’s an example of how that might work:

Your sibling, who does the majority of the caretaking, clears some stuff from your parent’s home and donates it all to charity. You wanted some of the things that were cleared out. You accuse your sibling of not caring about your feelings and being a control freak.

If you remember to be curious in this situation, you’d might start the conversation by saying, “I was surprised that you got rid of so much of mom’s stuff. What prompted you to make that call?” When you start with curiosity, you’ll get a better understanding of the situation. Maybe you’ll find out that some things were tripping hazards for your mother. Maybe your sibling was stressed and didn’t have time to consult you. Once you hear your sibling out, you can say how you feel. Then you can have a discussion about what to do going forward.

When One Sibling Does More

Caregiving responsibilities are almost never split evenly among adult children. In fact, there is usually one sibling that does most of the heavy lifting. Many reasons factor into this, from geography and work schedules to the quality of the parent-child relationship.

When one child does the lion’s share, ALL of the adult children can end up with negative feelings. The caretaking child might feel resentful, overburdened, and angry that they are shouldering so much of the care. Adult children who don’t do as much caretaking sometimes feel shut out of the decision-making, not to mention guilty for not doing more.

If you are the main caretaker, chances are good your siblings don’t fully understand how many different things you do for your parent. If you’re feeling resentful, ask for help. Lay out for your siblings all the different areas where your parent needs care. Which areas do you want help in? Some examples are:

  • managing medication
  • go to medical appointments
  • arranging in-home services
  • grocery shopping
  • managing finances
  • household chores like laundry and cleaning
  • researching next steps in care—more services, assisted living, nursing care
  • researching eligibility for benefits—medical insurance, veteran benefits, state programs, etc.

Sometimes people want to help, but they don’t know what needs to be done. Be specific and try to group tasks by categories. If your sibling can take full control of one or two areas, that frees up your mental energy to focus on the other areas.

Conversely, if you are not the main caregiver, but you want to be more involved, make your availability known. Do a little research so you’re informed about elder care. Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can do anything,” offer to take over specific tasks.

Disagreeing About the Level of Care a Parent Needs

Siblings often disagree about how much care their aged parents need. One sibling may want their parent to maintain their sense of independence, while others believe their parents need some help. It can be hard to tell who’s right. And let’s face it, it’s hard to be objective when it comes to our own parents.

Thankfully, you don’t have to fight this battle alone. If your parent will allow you to, make an appointment with their primary care physician. (Because of HIPPA privacy laws, your parent’s physician can speak to you about their care only if your parent gives written permission.)

Your parent’s doctor can help assess what level of care is needed. They’ll ask questions regarding your parent’s level of functioning in several different areas such as:

  • dressing
  • remembering to take medicine
  • eating regularly and able to fix meals
  • bathroom safety
  • issues with incontinence

Your parent’s physician may also recommend an in-home screening by a nurse or care provider. These professionals will look at how your parent moves around their home and manages household tasks. They may recommend services such as housekeeping and laundry, grocery shopping, physical or occupational therapy, food preparation, or personal care such as bathing and dressing.

Having an outside opinion can take the onus of decision-making off of adult children and help end sibling disagreements about care.

End of Life and Palliative Care

One of the hardest conversations for families to have centers around end of life issues. Understandably, most people do not like to think about their own death or that of their loved ones.

Having this difficult conversation earlier than later, though, makes it far less emotionally charged. Encourage your loved ones to prepare their advance directive if they haven’t already. According to AARP,

Every adult should have an advance directive in which you explain the type of health care you do or do not want when you can’t make your own decisions. You should also appoint someone who can speak for you to make sure your wishes are carried out.”

Advance directives vary by state and are binding legal documents. Most include:

  • a “living will” which outlines your medical wishes under different circumstances and
  • the appointment of a health care proxy, who will carry out your wishes if you are unable to do so yourself

Hashing this out ahead of time can reduce family friction later on. The last thing children want to be doing when their parents are gravely ill is fighting with their siblings.

Finding your way through the maze of elder care is challenging for any family. No one gets through it all without emotions flaring. If you’re lucky, and you can remember that you all have your parent’s best interests at heart, you and your siblings can support each other throughout the journey.

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For more information on managing elder care check out the following resources:

https://www.caregiver.org/caregiving-issues-and-strategies

https://eldercare.acl.gov/Public/Index.aspx

https://www.ncoa.org/

https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/