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Family Decisions

Siblings, Stress and the Holidays

thanksgiving holiday meal on table with turkey corn vegetables

I’m not looking forward to the holidays as much as I should be. My siblings will be in town, and I’m not sure I can deal with them on top of taking care of mom. It’s going to be stressful enough as it is, and I really don’t want arguments about what’s best for mom, or who isn’t helping out enough. It happens every time we get together – and it’s exhausting.

Let’s face it – the holidays can be both wonderful and challenging. There are extra activities that fill the calendar, financial stress, and a holiday to-do list that seems to get longer every year. And that’s on top of your regular caregiver responsibilities. Add in some relatives and family drama, and it’s no wonder the holidays aren’t always merry and bright.

There are four common causes of sibling tension that can arise when everyone gets together for a holiday. Knowing what they are – and what to do about them – can help all of you have a happier holiday season.

Balance of Caregiving
It’s not always possible for siblings to contribute equally to caregiving. Typically, one sibling does the lion’s share. If siblings don’t help with aging parents, or if the caregiver perceives an inequality, it can lead to sibling tensions and caregiver resentment.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Talk about how to divide the load. Have a family meeting and lay out different areas that require help. Be honest about the needs. Even if your siblings don’t live in town, there are things they can do to help. Someone can focus on finances, another can research helpful tools, services, or senior living options. Someone else can call your parent regularly and be a good listener.
  • Ask for a break while they’re here. Arrange a time where your siblings can be with mom or dad while you get out of the house. Do something that’s relaxing or just plain fun. Hang out with a friend, go on a date with your significant other, or go for a walk or a run. You’ll feel better, and your parent gets to spend time with the family.

Different Perceptions
Siblings tend to argue about things like whether Dad should stop driving or if Mom should get a higher level of care. Sometimes that’s a matter of denial – it’s hard to accept that your parent is no longer able to do everything they used to do. And sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. The Alzheimer’s Association says it’s not at all uncommon for visiting siblings to notice changes in your parent that you might not have seen because you’re in the thick of things every day.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Try to stick to the facts and evidence. These can be very emotional conversations, so it’s important to try to remain calm and talk about the facts. Write them down as you all talk about it. This will help everyone sift through feelings, see the needs or issues more accurately, and work together to come up with a care plan.
  • Try to accept a different perspective. Listening to each other respectfully and considering that someone else may be right can help you see things in a different light. And that can help you be a better caregiver.

Money Matters
Financial concerns are pivotal in making caregiving decisions, such as choosing where your parent should live, what medical care might be needed, or even if they can afford a housekeeper. Figuring out how to pay for it all can cause a lot of sibling tension. And that’s not to mention your cost as a caregiver – the financial strain it adds as well as the cost in terms of how it affects your job.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Be open. Set up regular communication about your parents’ finances and the cost of care. This avoids unpleasant surprises, and when a big decision needs to be made, everyone is aware and can help figure out what to do next.
  • Accept what each of you can afford. Not everyone can afford to contribute the same amount for care, or to fly out to visit or take over for a while. And that’s ok. There are other ways to help. When you have realistic expectations, it lowers the risk of resentment.

Family Patterns
Sometimes, no matter how grown up you are, when the family gets together, you fall right back into childhood roles and patterns. Rivalries or old wounds resurface. Older siblings dominate and leave the younger ones out. Not only is it unhealthy for you and your siblings, it can get in the way of providing the best care for your parent.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Be aware of those patterns. When you recognize your own behavior for what it is, you can do something about it. Before you react, stop and take a breath. Count to 10 if you have to. Then you can make a conscious choice about how best to move forward.
  • Try to see things from another’s point of view. If you can see, for example, that your sister isn’t arguing with you about Mom’s care because she thinks you’re doing it wrong, but because she’s feeling helpless or afraid, it can change the conversation.

There’s another thing you can to help manage the added stress of family during the holidays. Set realistic expectations for yourself and your siblings. Make plans together before they arrive, so that everyone knows how busy or laid back, fancy or minimal, active or quiet your time together will be. Discuss your parent’s current health and capabilities so everyone can adjust their expectations accordingly. And agree that while it might not be a Norman Rockwell, picture-perfect holiday, you’ll work together to make it a holiday that’s just right for your perfectly imperfect family.

Here are some more resources for your family to use when it comes to figuring out the best way to help your aging parents. Making a Family Decision.
Share the link with your siblings and start talking about it at your next family meeting. (You’ve planned one, right?)

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