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When Siblings Disagree About a Parent’s Care

No matter how well you and your siblings get along or how well you work together as caregivers, you will sometimes disagree about the best way to help your parent.

  • You might agree that a parent can no longer live alone but disagree on whether it would be better to hire a home health aide or move your loved one to an assisted living facility.
  • You might agree that it’s painful to watch your ill parent suffer but disagree about whether to try another treatment or consider hospice care.
  • You might be debating about whether your parent is strong enough for a surgery or other procedure a doctor recommends.

Resolving such disagreements is easier when your parent can make their wishes known or when a spouse or health care agent can speak for them. However, if it’s up to you and your siblings to make decisions, how should you go about it? Here are some actions you can take.

Gather Information and Documents

The more you and your siblings know about your parent’s finances and their wishes regarding end-of-life care, the less opportunity there will be for conflict. Find out whether your parent planned in advance for end-of-life care by preparing legal documents such as powers of attorney for medical or financial decisions (or both), a health care proxy, and other advance directives (such as a do not resuscitate order). If so, these documents should guide your decision-making.

Call a Family Meeting

Sometimes, however, this kind of advance planning doesn’t happen, or the documents are too general—“I don’t want to be a burden.” In addition, issues may arise that neither you nor your parent ever imagined. If your family is facing a crisis without clear direction, a family meeting can help.

Family meetings give everyone the chance to share information and express their concerns about a parent’s changing health. Such meetings can be a good way to set goals, air differences, and evaluate possible solutions to specific situations.

Holding a successful family meeting takes planning. Here are some tips to help your meeting go smoothly:

  • Include your parent(s), if that’s realistic.
  • Send out an agenda to keep everyone on topic.
  • Have relevant information (medical records, price quotes from home care agencies) at the ready.
  • Let everyone speak.
  • Stay focused on your parent’s needs. Remind everyone—including yourself—that all of you want what’s best for your parent.
  • Be direct, particularly if asking for help. Acknowledge that there may be no fair way to evenly distribute the work.
  • Be polite and kind—it’s an emotionally difficult time for everyone.

Get Outside Help

If the chances of you and your siblings having a civil meeting are zero, or if making a difficult choice (such as deciding whether it’s time for hospice or whether you should stop life-sustaining treatment) is impossible, you may need to bring in an outside expert.

Even healthy, close families can benefit from the perspective of such an expert, who can act as an objective third party. The key word here is objective—this is not the time to seek advice from old family friends, other relatives, or well-meaning neighbors. Look for help from an unbiased professional, such as one of the following:

  • Geriatric care manager. Usually a nurse or social worker who specializes in elder care, a geriatric care manager will assess your parent’s abilities and needs to develop and then oversee a plan of action. Managers can prevent sibling arguments about what a parent might really need by offering professional guidance and perspective on your parent’s actual situation.
  • Family counselor. Generally a psychologist or social worker, a family counselor will help you and your family members to better understand one another and address your conflicts more effectively. Family counseling is a fine choice for resolving issues, but only if you and your siblings are willing to put in the time and effort required.
  • Elder care mediator. When family relationships have truly broken down, an elder care mediator can step in to resolve conflicts and facilitate negotiation between warring parties. Mediators can be found through your local court system or at Mediate.com.
  • Clergy member. A clergy member who is neutral and not a family friend may also have the skills to guide you to a peaceful resolution. Clergy members often have counseling experience and may be less expensive than the other options.

Be aware that third-party input is generally not free, and can be quite expensive. However, resolving family disputes during this challenging period could pay off well into the future.

No matter how close in age or in temperament you and your siblings are, you’ve all had different relationships with your parent, and you’ll experience and cope with the changes in their health differently. As you work to find common ground, remember that not all caregiving issues can be fully resolved. Try to work toward general agreement rather than a perfect solution.