If you’re lucky enough to have brothers and sisters you enjoy, working with them when your parents need extra help will likely go pretty smoothly.
But many of us with siblings have complicated or distant relationships with one or more of them. Unfortunately plenty of families “assign” one person to do everything for Mom and Dad, but that often leads to burn out and resentment that ruins relationships.
When a parent is at a transition and needs you to be more involved in their lives, how will you work together as a group?
The Ideal Plan
Before your parents have a health crisis or need a lot of extra support, meet as a family and talk about expectations. Are your parents going to need financial support? Do they expect to stay in their current living situation for the foreseeable future, or do they plan to move?
Is the sibling pair or group willing to work together? What siblings are up for doing what kinds of things? What kind of good will can you establish right now with one another?
If you can have these kinds of discussions before you have to, you can by-pass some of the anxiety and defensiveness that is common among siblings when big changes occur.
The Realistic Plan
If like most families you don’t talk about the future until it arrives, there are still plenty of things you can do to make working together go as smoothly as possible.
Keep your expectations realistic
When a parent needs extra help or is having a health crisis, it can bring out the best and worst in you and your siblings. Old wounds will open and old family dynamics will be repeated. Childhood rivalries may still be present.
As you talk more with your siblings, be realistic about what you can expect from them (and from yourself). The brother who never shows up at family events is probably not going to be the person going to the doctor appointments with your dad.
The unequal division of responsibilities is typically the #1 tension
If you know this going in, you and your siblings can do your best to make contributions as equitable as possible.
Meet as an entire sibling group
The more that each sibling is part of every conversation concerning how you’ll support your parents, the more cohesive you’ll feel.
If two of you work out a plan and then share it with the other two, the other two are not going to feel as invested in the plan. If you complain to your brother about your sister, it undermines your power as a team.
Say what you feel, say what you need, and listen without judgment
This is probably the hardest thing to do on this list. Recognize that you each may be feeling a lot of different things – worry, guilt, anger, sadness, stress – and will have different ways of expressing those feelings.
Also you and your siblings may differ greatly in how much time, energy, desire and money you have to help your parents.
If you can accept that you’ll be coming at this from different angles and with different ideas, it will help you come up with a workable plan.
Discuss the common goals
What is it exactly that your parents need? They may be able to tell you directly and participate in these conversations, or they may not.
They may need someone to check in on them every day, help with grocery shopping and other errands, a health care advocate, a new place to live, or many other things. See if you can agree on what the common goals are.
Talk about what you can do
Given the common goals, each sibling can talk about what she can do to contribute. This will be the time when everyone will be worrying that they’re going to have to do “too much”. Hang in there, and suggest contributions that play to your strengths.
Do you have more money than time? Do you have no money and no time? Are you close to your mom? Do you faint in hospitals? Do you have a newborn? Are you retired? Take into consideration what’s happening in your life as you talk about what you can do.
Address all concerns
There will likely be plenty of concerns. Air them. Put them on the table for everyone to see – don’t keep them to yourself and stay at a low simmer for weeks.
Try to avoid all-or-nothing deals, where one person wins and everyone else loses. At the end ideally everyone’s either pretty well satisfied with the plan or is stretched a little beyond his comfort zone, rather than panicking or feeling furious.
Try the plan out and set a date to evaluate it
Your initial plan doesn’t have to be set in stone. See how well it works – are your parents happy? Are the goals being met?
Set a date to evaluate how it’s going and make adjustments as needed. Talk about whether the plan is likely to work long-term.
If communication is totally breaking down, consider an outside facilitator
Sometimes there is too much to do and so much contention that families can’t move forward productively. In these cases, asking a social worker, counselor, religious leader or friend facilitate a family meeting can help the group come to a shared plan of action.
Some siblings might be totally unable or unwilling to help. If no one will help, or if you’re an only child without a partner, cousin or supportive friend to help you, be sure you get some respite care for yourself.
Contact your local Caregiver Resource Center, Area Agency on Aging or senior center to locate help. A Geriatric Care Manager could also be a valuable resource to you.
How well are you and your siblings banding together?
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