Being the primary caregiver to an aging parent is hard enough, but when siblings come to visit, it can add another layer of stress. It may seem like they breeze into town with no idea of how much you do, yet still question every part of the carefully choreographed routine you and your parent have worked out. Caregiving roles often evolve out of these family dynamics, and can result in criticisms on both sides.
“Families are complicated,” says Judy Santamaria, an expert in family caregiving issues. “Siblings have a long history, but it’s often based on the distant past. You view each other a certain way based on who you were when you were younger, even though you may be completely different people now.”
Here are some steps that siblings both near and far can take to keep the waters calm when caring for an aging parent.
If you haven’t been talking to your siblings about your parent’s care on a regular basis, start as soon as possible. This will help everyone get on the same page about the aging parent’s plan of care, and give long-distance siblings an idea of what to expect as well as give you a chance to explain your and your parent’s situation in detail. It can also be beneficial to have an outsider mediate the meeting—a family friend, a clergyman, or geriatric care manager. Scheduling regular meetings can allow everyone to feel involved and to be informed of changes in your parent’s health.
“Caregiving is imperfect at best,” says Santamaria. “You try to do the best for your parent within the scope of their willingness.” This is something an out-of-town sibling might not initially understand. He or she might notice that you’re not doing something the way it’s supposed to be done or that parts of your parent’s plan of care are not being followed and assume you’ve dropped the ball. If you’ve had to adapt because your parent refuses to do things a certain way, let your siblings know—and invite their help.
When it comes time to delegate tasks, recognize that every sibling has strengths as well as a certain relationship with your parent. The responsible older sister might feel more comfortable managing mom’s finances, while the happy-go-lucky kid brother has the role of keeping mom’s spirits up. Try to value what each sibling brings to the table instead of getting resentful over who does what, and keep logistics for long-distance siblings in mind.
If you are that out-of-town sibling, often the most helpful thing you can do is take over the caregiving duties for a few hours so your sibling can get a break. Long-distance siblings may feel some guilt that they aren’t as involved in their parent’s care, but often the best way to help the family is to support their sibling. On the flipside, it’s important for the primary caregiver to relinquish some control and take help when it’s offered.