By Mary Campbell
Anyone who has ever battled with a sibling about sharing toys, clothes, or living space knows that brothers and sisters can really mix it up. When adding the additional stress of caregiving for elderly parents or other relatives to sibling relationships, tensions can sometimes boil over. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Members of the Gen X and Millennial generations are spending increasing amounts of time helping elderly relatives care for themselves and navigate ever-more-complex healthcare systems. The 65-and-older population grew by over a third from 2010 to 2019. As this cohort continues to age, their demand for caregiving services will grow. Their adult children and other relatives will be tasked with providing that help. The best methods to effectively share caregiving tasks among family members are similar to those that foster good relationships. Siblings need to understand shared responsibilities, sharing their goals, and set healthy boundaries.
Our relationships with our siblings can be among the most enduring in our lives. Siblings can know one another and their personalities (and their preferred communication styles) better than they know anyone else. They know who is introverted; who procrastinates; and who has a habit of not picking up the phone when they’re too busy. But that knowledge can also cause conflict. We recommend first considering all the assumptions that go along with caregiving and questioning those assumptions, like who “always” helps and who “never” does. Here are some tips:
When beginning to share duties, holding family meetings can be helpful.
Choose a time when everyone can meet (even if they have to join the meeting virtually or on the phone). Set a brief agenda. Consider holding an initial meeting just for caregivers, as well as a follow-up meeting with the person who requires care. Make initial decisions for what needs most urgently to be done and who might be best able to help with cleaning, transportation and shopping, personal finance tasks, and doctor appointments.
Don’t be afraid to make your preferences known!
Everyone has different abilities and often caregiving tasks can be sorted among the most appropriate family members. Be aware that the time needs of different tasks will vary over the experience; at tax time, there are more financial tasks to complete. Likewise, accidents or acute health events like strokes or cataract surgeries will consume more time during some months and less during others.
Family members must also agree on the level of time and resources that they can provide.
This is a time for honest communication: if you are starting a business or a new job, or have a new baby, your ability to provide extras like outings or visits for your elderly relative might be curtailed. Try to outline what all family members consider the most important priorities (pillbox filling, meal providing, doctor visits), and meet those obligations first.
Setting boundaries within families can be challenging.
Siblings will disagree on the extent of parents’ needs and the best ways to meet them. Your opinions matter! State them clearly and often rather than keeping them to yourself and then becoming angry when you feel ignored. One of the most contentious issues among families is members’ differing abilities to “just say no”— some are comfortable stating their limits, while others will neglect their own lives to take on ever more caregiving jobs.
Setting boundaries means that all family members need to become more flexible with one another.
You can decide what you are uncomfortable doing, and state that, but be prepared to offer to fill other roles instead to keep things fair. Remember that feeling guilt is normal. Acknowledge the feeling at times when competing demands mean you are stretched thin across all your responsibilities. Then move on. You will get more done if you are not explaining yourself to your guilty conscience or your siblings.
It is possible to provide generous and sustaining care to family members without damaging your relationships with your siblings. Remember to have conversations about the help required, work together to define shared goals, and recognize the boundaries set by your fellow family members. These strategies will help you minimize possible frustrations and to maximize the many instances of grace and love that often accompany caregiving.