I’m the oldest of four children, and I’ve been taking care of my dad every day for the last three years. My brothers and sisters don’t live close by, so it’s all on me. It’s getting to be too much, and I want Dad to move to an assisted living community. But now my siblings are butting in – they’re criticizing all my decisions and telling Dad he should stay at home with me. We’re mad at each other, Dad’s upset, and I’ve just about had it with all of them.
As a clinical psychologist and family therapist, Dr. Barry Jacobs has seen this scenario all too often. “Nothing can reveal the fault lines in sibling relationships like the decline of a parent’s health,” he says. Tensions rise over who gets to make decisions, and old resentments can bubble up, all of which can damage sibling relationships and shortchange your parent’s care.
Jacobs says parental caregivers make three common mistakes with their siblings. If you know what these pitfalls are, you can take steps to avoid them when dealing with your family.
1. Believing that “fair” must be “equal.”
It’s common for caregivers to think each sibling should carry the same amount of caregiving responsibilities. “That’s not realistic,” says Jacobs. “The fact is, the majority of caregiving falls on one or two people’s shoulders.”
It has to do with available time and resources, proximity to the parent, and personality. Sometimes, he says, the parent also has a preference for who takes care of them. “Remember that everybody is making some degree of sacrifice,” he says. “It’s not all going to be the same – it’s best to accept it.”
He recommends keeping everyone informed, so you can work as a team to divide up caregiving tasks according to each person’s skills, availability, resources and willingness.
2. Assuming your siblings are still the kids you grew up with.
Childhood dynamics can easily creep back into your sibling relationships when caring for a parent. Brothers may expect sisters to do most of the caregiving because females did most of the family-oriented work when they were growing up. Jacobs says you may also find yourselves jockeying for decision-making power or even parental approval, just like when you were little.
He says that even his own family wasn’t immune to this kind of reversion. His relationship with his brother became strained because they didn’t agree on their roles in caring for their aging mother before she died. “In his mind,” says Jacobs, “I was playing the bullying older brother who has always tried to dictate to him. In my mind, he was still the stubborn younger brother who wouldn’t live up to his family responsibilities.”
It’s important that you look for signs of growth and give your siblings a chance to demonstrate who they are now, he says. That makes it easier for you to pull together as a team and give your parent the best care possible.
3. Giving up on each other.
When added to the natural stresses of caregiving, disagreements, resentments and tension can end up permanently damaging sibling relationships. One of the biggest mistakes you can make, Jacobs says, is to give up the relationship. “You may think that your brother or sister won’t ever come through, or that the problems are just not worth it,” he says.
But he cautions against it, because the stakes are high. How well you work with your siblings during these caregiving years will shape your interactions forever. “Long after your parent is gone, everyone distinctly remembers – and judges – how each other behaved,” says Jacobs.
He’s seen siblings strengthen their relationships by learning about each other, respecting each other and working together. But if you can’t resolve conflicts, or if you close off the relationships, the odds of you pulling together as a loving family again are very low.
Jacobs took his own counsel to heart in his relationship with his brother. They both acknowledged that each made sacrifices for their mom’s care. And they worked on being kinder in the way they dealt with one another. “We had work to do, but at least we knew we were tackling it.” And that made a world of difference.
[Expert Bio] Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist, family therapist, and the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He’s the national spokesperson on caregiving for the American Heart Association and an honorary board member of the Well Spouse Association. He’s also a blogger on family caregiving topics for AARP.org and Huffington Post. Dr. Jacobs is the co-author (with Julia L. Mayer, Psy.D.) of AARP Meditations for Caregivers – Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family (Da Capo, 2016), and co-editor of Collaborative Perspectives – a selection of CFHA’s best blogs from 2009 – 2015 (Collaborative Family Healthcare Association, 2017).