The deteriorating health of a loved one is undoubtedly a painful thing to witness. It can be particularly difficult, however, to watch our parents grow old. The people who once cared for us become the vulnerable ones in a sad reversal of roles that can affect the entire family.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are approximately 34 million caregivers in the U.S. who are looking after an adult aged 50 or older. A caregiver is an unpaid individual involved in helping others with daily living or medical tasks. This individual can be a spouse, family member, friend, or neighbor.
When parents age, their adult children often assume caregiving responsibilities. Due to the overwhelming challenges of this role – particularly among the Sandwich Generation, in which adult children are caring for aging parents and their own young children simultaneously – the duties are often divided amongst siblings. By sharing this effort, there is also less chance mom or dad will feel isolated as adult children juggle the demands of their own domestic lives.
If you have decided to share caregiving duties with your brothers and sisters, here are some tips to help siblings stick together during this difficult time.
#1: Recognize tensions can flare as parents age
Watching the decline of a parent can be a painful time for all children involved. This phenomenon is known as anticipatory grief. As the family enters this period of transition, be careful not to pass judgment on siblings who may not have had a close bond with the aging parent.
During this period, many siblings are going through a major emotional shift that can stir up feelings from childhood. Watching our parents age and eventually pass is one of the hardest things in life, and everyone will handle this pain differently. For instance, it’s common for male caregivers to experience isolation, despite the fact that men now comprise about 45% of all family caregivers.
It is absolutely normal to feel a range of emotions as siblings come together to provide care. You may feel resentment towards your brother, who became estranged several years ago. Or you may suddenly feel the need to compete with your sister as the more dedicated caregiver.
Because this is a difficult stage, try to have compassion for yourself and your siblings. Understand the fear, pain, and anxiety that is causing them to react the way they do. This compassionate approach will help you navigate upcoming hurdles with patience and ease.
#2: Carefully consider each sibling’s caregiving role
As a parent’s health slowly deteriorates, some families will slip into a certain way of doing things without having had much discussion. For example, one sibling may have inadvertently assumed the role of primary caregiver because they did not have a job or needed a place to stay. Or the ‘caregiving’ may have begun years prior when a sister, who lives close to the parent, started helping out with small things.
Sometimes, these common occurrences can stir resentment among family members. Although a particular arrangement may have seemed convenient at the time, it can cause problems down the line. This is why the family must identify what each sibling is expected to do, and which support tasks each person is willing to provide.
#3: Avoid slipping into old family roles
Even though we behave differently with non-family members, it is easy to slip into our old roles when with our siblings. When it comes to caregiving, however, these roles may not work anymore. As parents age, they may not be able to make their own decisions, handle their own finances, or act as a mediator between their bickering children.
It is crucial to redefine everyone’s roles as the family enters this transition. Perhaps your sister was labeled the ‘responsible’ one, while your brother was encouraged to go out and pursue his dreams, leaving you to handle his share of chores throughout childhood.
If you and your siblings are falling back into these old roles, then take a step back and reassess. Are you being pinned as the selfless older sister or the vulnerable little kid, even though we’re all adults now?
Take a fresh look at your siblings and erase the old labels your parents attached to them growing up. By assessing each member’s talents and characteristics, you will be able to delegate caregiving responsibilities that speak to everyone’s strengths.
#4: Understand your siblings may have different ideas of what the parent needs
Your thoughts on what is helpful and necessary for your aging parent may differ from your siblings. It is common for one child to believe the parent is in more danger than they really are. Another child may question whether that same parent actually needs this much assistance at all.
When different opinions arise, allow everyone a chance to get on the same page. Instead of rushing to make decisions, give each sibling some time to process new information or take in the situation. Make sure to share information, whether it was given to you by a doctor, nurse, or geriatric therapist.
And keep in mind parents will often tell different children different things. So, your sibling may have no choice than to believe mom or dad is doing fine if that is what they are being told. This is why it is crucial for everyone to get all angles of the story before making firm decisions.
#5: Never over-simplify your siblings’ reactions
It is easy to label your brothers and sisters as lazy, arrogant, selfish, or self-righteous. But remember: They are probably just as scared as you are. Each child will have a different relationship with the aging parent, which will often dictate how they handle caregiving duties.
By understanding this, you will be able to communicate with your siblings more objectively and effectively. Always keep in mind that they are not bad children just because they do not act and feel the same way you do.
Many caregivers will admit tending to the needs of a loved one can be a rewarding experience. But it can also be one that will test your patience, stir ambivalence, and take a toll on your emotional well-being. By relying on your siblings for support, you will be in a better position to offer mom or dad the loving care they deserve.