When Siblings Fight About Senior Care

February 3, 2021 by Katie Davis

When Siblings fight over senior care - Aging in place with CarePods, Charlotte NC

When deciding on the best senior care option for elderly parents, siblings may find it difficult to achieve consensus. No one wants to find themselves making senior care decisions for their parents, but family dynamics and infighting can make a bad situation worse. It’s best to accept and understand that these dynamics frequently impact senior care decisions. The key is to ensure they don’t deter forward progress on behalf of your loved one.

In our experience, there are three main reasons siblings experience conflict when making caregiving decisions for elderly parents.

  • Historic Familial and Societal Roles
  • Poor Communication 
  • Lack of a Goal

Familial and Societal Roles

We all wear many hats. Some are professional in nature and others are personal. We may be a teacher, a daughter, a wife, a mom, a kid sister, the eldest, etc.

When it comes to family decision-making, our historic role and identity in the family acts as a unique filter through which we process data. Any information… any action… (whether we realize it or not) is filtered through the familial role and identity we assumed over the years.

A typical example is that of the oldest child in a family of several children. Maybe you babysat your siblings growing up or your Mom and Dad trusted you with family responsibilities and information they didn’t share with others. Over the years, you assumed a leadership role among your siblings. Now, when Mom and Dad need additional support, you step forward confidently to shepherd progress.

Another common example would be that of the only female child among a group of male siblings. You think your parents need caregiving support and are doing all you can to fill in the gaps, but your siblings aren’t motivated to reduce your work or help with the burden of caregiving. They would prefer to wait until something happens that forces a change. 

And finally, in many caregiving and senior care situations, you may find yourself rankled by your parent’s responsiveness to one sibling’s idea instead of yours. Perhaps that sibling has always been your parent’s “favorite.” Even now, it’s hard to avoid resentment when you’re putting in an equal amount of work and care with no recognition.

It’s no surprise that our families are a reflection of society at large, and that the roles we assume in both areas impact our decision-making. Still, many adult children find themselves surprised by the extent to which their historic roles and relationships impact senior care decisions. The first step to getting past damaging family dynamics so you can work towards better decisions is simply to acknowledge and recognize that they exist.

Poor Communication

What is it about our family that brings out the worst in us? With neighbors and friends, we are polite, measured and kind. But, with family members we often cross invisible boundaries in our communication and are surprised when we receive a negative reaction.

Many adult children are working professionals with families of their own. Time is at a premium and they may find themselves communicating by text more often than is prudent. While it’s tempting to put all your siblings on a group text for efficiency’s sake, you may find that this medium isn’t ideal for sensitive conversations.

When you’re having conversations about options or facing opposition from parents, it’s best to schedule a phone or video call with your siblings to discuss next steps. Find a time that works for everyone if possible and be respectful of the other siblings’ schedule and timeline.

When communicating, allow your sibling the same amount of time to respond, digest and process as you would a friend or neighbor. Not all of us make decisions quickly and some need time to take in information. This is particularly true when we’re applying our own emotional filters to the question at hand. (See above!)

Sometimes, pausing to sleep on important decisions and diverting the conversation to inquire about your sibling’s wellbeing makes a big difference.

Finally, avoid blaming your siblings whenever possible and set strong boundaries. Kindly but firmly let others know what you can and cannot do during this time. We’ve said it once, but it bears repeating: THERE ARE NO HAPPY MARTYRS IN CAREGIVING. 

Goals Are Important

We’ve all heard someone say, “I’m just trying to get everyone on the same page.” We would add that it’s impossible to get everyone on the same page if there isn’t a page to begin with.

One of the most powerful tools you can employ to reduce conflict among siblings is to find a common goal. “What are we trying to achieve on behalf of Mom and Dad?,” you may ask the group.

By this stage, we hope you’ve helped your parents identify their #1 goal. Whether that’s staying in their home as long as possible or avoiding the hospital for six months, you’ll want to rally your siblings around the chosen goal.

I’m sure your next question is: “What happens if their goals are unrealistic?”

We cover that here, but we also remind caregivers that you do have to create a boundary pertaining to facts. You should never negotiate on facts with your siblings or with your parents. But, you can use tact, empathy and ingenuity to address factual concerns without alienating your loved ones. 

Here’s an example of this in action:

Scenario: Mom has fallen and been hospitalized three times in the last six months. When you express your concern, she says she’s fine and just wants things to go back to normal. When you ask your sibling to help you convince Mom to get some support, she brushes it off and says, “Mom will be more careful, it won’t happen again.”

Her response may make you want to pull your hair out with frustration since you know another fall is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if.’ But, instead, you may make more progress by approaching your sibling from another angle. It may sound a little like this:

You: We know Mom’s #1 goal is to stay in her home as long as possible. I know we’re both committed to doing everything we can to ensure that happens. I personally don’t feel comfortable leaving her wishes to chance since she’s fallen so many times. How do you feel? And do you have an alternative solution to propose?”

Sibling: Not really. I’m not sure what to do. She’s just adamant that she doesn’t want help.

You: Well, if there were small steps we could take to help her stay at home safely and avoid injury, do you feel more comfortable working towards that? Or would you be more comfortable leaving things alone until she falls again?

Sibling: I’m just not sure what’s the right thing. If there are small ways we can help, I’d want to do that without upsetting her.

You: I totally understand and it’s difficult for me, too. I could really use your input if we’re going to help Mom stay at home. Would you have a little time to review some ideas I have and her doctor’s recommendations again? Then, we can discuss them and possibly talk to Mom as a unit? I promise I won’t speak for you and we won’t overwhelm her.

And so on and so on. Take note that the above exchange is patient, firm and reflective. In an extreme scenario, if your sibling didn’t want to take any action and wasn’t motivated to act by the likelihood of Mom being forced out of her home by a fall or injury, you may not find common ground. At that point, you must respect your own boundaries and act on your concerns within the limits of what you can reasonably do.

In closing, sibling conflict is a frequent and unwelcome companion during the senior care journey. When working with prospects, we help children and families navigate these challenges as they come. Ultimately, your goal should be to strengthen your familial bonds during this process. But when a member of the family makes that impossible, you should create firm boundaries to prevent dysfunction from blocking the path forward.

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