Sibling Rivalry in Eldercare

Sibling rivalry is not uncommon in caring for aging parents. Just imagine five brothers and sisters all having input about what’s best for Dad. Who’s right when not everyone agrees? How will decisions get made? And, will this situation end up in some kind of court battle? Also, will Dad get lost in the conflict?

Five Siblings, One Dad, Many Viewpoints

A family with five siblings contacted us after their Mom died. Dad was now living alone and Mom had done everything around the home. We were hired to do a care management assessment. The process involved interviewing all five siblings, some local and some around the country. They had varying opinions, different exposure to Dad’s day-to-day life and a range of relationships with him and each other.

One son was “a concern” to a few of them because he’d had financial troubles and various personal issues. He helped Dad with some practical tasks, but they were leery of relying on him. The oldest son lived several states away and traveled internationally. He’d always been the “financial manager” for his parents. And, he felt strongly that an assisted living facility would be best for Dad. But, he also explained that Dad had the money for whatever was best. Another daughter lived far away and visited rarely. Two local daughters shared the primary burden of dealing with everything day-to-day. Both had families of their own, with kids still at home. One lived closer but commuted to a demanding job. The other lived a bit further away and worked part-time. They had both been “caregivers since a young age”, with the assumption they’d always help. (Dad had a long history of chronic illness.) And, though they loved him dearly, there was some resentment about this and Dad’s attitude toward them.

Fortunately, the siblings were all open to getting the assessment. There was a lot of potential for discord. However, they respected the opinion of the professionals involved (as we did theirs). And, they were able to keep Dad at the forefront of the conversations. This doesn’t always happen, unfortunately.

Who Wins in the Sibling Rivalry?

The reality is that no one sibling is usually right. No one solution works in all elder care situations. Each of their ideas might have merit, as might their concerns. Unfortunately, in the battle to be right, sometimes Dad loses. We’ll share tips to set things up to minimize this possibility. And, we’ll share some practical pointers about “how to” disagree. They might seem simple, but they’re easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

When Our Inner Children Come Out

Often, adult children’s opinions are clouded by emotion. These are our parents after all. This is our most basic, primal relationship. It is not surprising that we’re often too close to the situation to make clear decisions. And, old wounds or “baggage” continue to turn up in the dynamics.

Additionally, siblings tend to play out roles they’ve always had in the family. Or, certain common patterns (you’re not alone!) dictate the care. These include an oldest or nearest child taking on everything or assuming the lead. Or, certain siblings (often daughters, stay-at-home parents, or retired siblings) get assigned tasks or chores by others. The other siblings presume that they have the most time or it’s their natural role. Sometimes a financially disadvantaged child moves in or helps out in exchange for financial support. None of these are necessarily wrong, but too often they’re based on assumptions. Or, no one examines if it’s the best thing for Dad.

Tips: Managing Sibling Rivalry in Eldercare

Execute legal documents for decision-making.

Seek legal advice from experts who deal with aging care and elder law. Make sure you have documents properly completed and updated. Talk to your lawyer about concerns and potential problems. Ask about ways you can clarify wishes. The more you make your wishes and decisions known (and documented), the easier it will be on your kids. And, in the event of a fight, the easier it will be to resolve in a way that’s best for you.

Get an independent assessment.

This is one of the smartest moves you can make. Even if you are on the same page (and especially if you’re not), it helps ensure everyone has a clear picture. For example, when we did the assessment above, our care manager quickly noticed Dad had more significant memory issues than known by the siblings. Mom had covered for Dad. And, it became quite clear where he needed help, so they all understood the baseline needs.

The assessment provides personalized recommendations and helps families avoid pitfalls. In this case, we recommended a short-term in-home care plan to meet Dad’s needs. These included practical needs but also socialization and support. Additionally, this provided peace-of-mind to the two daughters, as the care manager confirmed the view that they could not provide the extent of care Dad needed. Having this message come from a professional helped everyone see it in a different light. The care manager also made several home safety recommendations, quite possibly saving Dad from a major accident, and saving the family from an unnecessary crisis.

The assessment also provided a big picture/longer term plan and helped prioritize tasks to be proactive. This gave each sibling involvement, in a way that worked for everyone. This doesn’t mean all conflicts were immediately smoothed over, of course. The family continued to work with the care manager as a sounding board and to organize regular family meetings. Many years later, when Dad died, the siblings shared that just having someone confirm they were doing the right thing made all the difference.

Our care managers have been hired to do many assessments for families in conflict, often for guardianship or contested cases.

Don’t forget about Dad.

Dad should always be at the center of decisions. Tips #1 and 2 will help, as you can be clear what he prefers and what he needs. As in our case, families that can keep the elder foremost will usually be able to work things out despite conflicts. Family mediation can be useful for continued conflict, or simply to keep discussions focused on Dad’s needs.

As the elder, take a proactive role.

Help your kids by making your wishes clear. Execute the legal documents that they’ll need. Also, make proactive decisions about your care. Don’t wait on a crisis, putting the family into a high-pressure situation. Consider hiring some in-home help. Or, look into retirement living options. And, do that before the family’s arguing about what “you need”.

Get help: be prepared, get an assessment or family mediation, talk to an expert

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Practical Tips from Our Mediators: “How to” Disagree

  1. Create a civil environment to discuss issues. Agree you won’t name call, yell or curse. Set up discussions with a care manager/mediator or counselor present if needed.
  2. Define the goals and agenda. Don’t veer off into past hurts or grand worries for the future.
  3. Use “I” language. Share your feelings and how things affect you. Avoid saying “you” and blaming your siblings.
  4. Don’t interrupt. If one sibling tends to dominate or one can’t get a word in, set time boundaries or rotate speaking.
  5. Ask your siblings what they need, especially the one(s) living close/doing the primary caregiving.
  6. Avoid absolutes or ultimatums. You might not wish to see Dad in a nursing home. But, don’t say “I’ll never allow Dad to go to a facility.” You don’t know what the future will bring. And, you shut down possibilities to find the best solution and compromises with absolute statements.