By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN
When an elderly parent's health begins to fail, one adult child generally becomes the primary caregiver. And while this may work well for a time, it can eventually cause resentment when you find yourself shouldering most of the burden—especially if other siblings live nearby yet don't help out.
What to do about your resentment? Before you blurt out words that you'll regret later, it's important to take a look at why you stepped up to the plate in the first place, says Lynne Coon, M.S., a nationally certified counselor from Portland, Oregon. In other words, she continues, "Why did you put yourself in this position?"
There are many reasons that people take on the role of primary caregiver, such as closer proximity to the elderly parent or greater availability to help out. But just as often it's because they see themselves as most able to do the job, says Coon. Unfortunately, a competent and capable adult child who has taken on the role of caregiver often begins doing more and more until eventually she or he becomes responsible for the majority of the caregiving duties.
While it's best to involve other siblings early on before such a pattern develops, it is possible to redistribute the responsibility later in the game. Here are some ideas for opening the lines of communication and enlisting the support of your siblings:
- Call a family meeting: Whether by conference call or in person, schedule a time to meet with all of your siblings, even those from out of town, to discuss what needs to be done to help your parents.
- Make a written agenda: "Write down an agenda for discussion," says Wendy Kaufman, a family and life-balancing specialist and CEO of Balancing Life's Issues, Inc. "Write down details of all you are doing now, such as health care, home obligations and transportation."
- Do as much listening as talking: Explain how you feel in a matter-of-fact way. But be open to other's feelings and viewpoints, too. Your siblings may not have been aware of how much you've been doing. Or perhaps they are feeling hurt and angry about being left out and uninformed about your parent's needs.
- Be specific about what you want: Have an idea beforehand about which tasks you'd like to be relieved of rather than just a general appeal for help. Perhaps you'd like someone to take over the driving to physical therapy appointments, or give a hand with grocery shopping or meal preparation.
- Divide up tasks: Split up the labor among those present. While there are many ways of doing this, Coon suggests dividing chores by expertise. A family member with experience in health issues could take on all of the medical appointments, for example. Or the person with good business sense might handle legal issues. And make sure to include siblings who live a distance away. Even if they can't help with day-to-day needs, they might offer money for a housekeeper, or be willing to come every few months to take over and give others a break.
- Don't expect total equality: It's not likely that you'll achieve total equality in division of tasks. This is okay, says Kaufman. "It's more important to make sure that all siblings have a manageable lifestyle, that all can help to alleviate some of the stress on each other."
Family Dynamics and Caring for Elderly Parents
Keep in mind that it's normal to experience tricky dynamics when siblings get together as adults, since childhood jealousies and rivalries as well as historical grudges may resurface under the pressure to work together and make sacrifices. If disagreements arise, says Kaufman, "it's good to remind yourself that this has nothing to do with what you or I want but about what's best for mom or dad."
Disagreements may be avoided by setting down ground rules for discussion ahead of time, such as agreeing to listen to and consider every alternative, even if some don't seem workable.
If all else fails, an option for getting past stressful communication is family mediation. A relatively new concept, mediation is an informal process in which a neutral third party sits down to help people in conflict to better understand their individual interests and needs so that they can agree upon a workable solution to the problem. Mediation helps to empower families to come up with their own solutions—and the end result is that it's often easier to stick with a decision that you've had a part in making. To find a mediator, contact your local senior center or Area Agency on Aging.
Even if you're successful in achieving a better distribution of responsibility, it's important to communicate, communicate, communicate. Hold regular family meetings to assure that all siblings are updated with your parent's condition and changes to the plan of care. Let them know how much their help is needed—and appreciated. "You've got to keep pulling together," says Coon, "for your own peace of mind—and your parents."
Linda Hepler is a freelance health writer whose work has appeared in a variety of health and fitness publications, such as "Family Doctor," "Fitness Plus," and "Max Sports and Fitness." She received her BS in nursing from Eastern Michigan University and works part time as an Employee Health Nurse in northern Michigan.