When an elderly parent’s health begins to fail, one adult child generally assumes the role of primary caregiver. While this arrangement may work well for a time, it can eventually lead to resentment when you find yourself shouldering most of the burden—especially if other siblings live nearby and still don’t help out.
Before you say or do something that you’ll regret later, it’s important to take a look at why you accepted this responsibility in the first place, says Lynne Coon, M.S., a licensed professional counselor in Portland, Oregon.
There are many reasons why people take on the role of primary caregiver, such as closest proximity to the parent or greatest availability to help out, but it’s often because one child sees themselves as most suitable for the job, says Coon. Unfortunately, a competent and capable adult child who has taken on this role typically begins doing more and more until they become solely responsible for most or all of the caregiving duties.
While it’s best to involve other siblings before such a pattern develops, it is possible to redistribute these responsibilities later in the game. Use these 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 with ALL of your siblings to discuss the issues that your parents are facing and what needs to be done to address them.
- Make a written agenda. “Write down an agenda for discussion so that nothing is overlooked,” says Wendy Wollner, a family and life-balancing specialist and CEO of Balancing Life’s Issues, Inc. “Before the meeting or call, write down a detailed list or schedule of everything you are currently doing on your own, such as providing health care, housekeeping, transportation, etc.” This will help you specifically convey the responsibilities you handle and avoid abstractions that won’t be taken as seriously, like “I do everything!”
- Balance listening and talking. Explain how you feel in a matter-of-fact way, but be open to others’ feelings and viewpoints, too. This is a difficult topic for everyone, and generally a lot of emotions are involved. Your siblings may not be aware of how much you’ve been doing, and they may even feel left out when it comes to addressing your parent’s needs.
- Be specific about what you want. Have an idea beforehand of which tasks you’d like to be relieved of rather than just making a general appeal for help. Perhaps you’d like someone to take over the transportation to physical therapy appointments or give a hand with grocery shopping or meal preparation.
- Divide up tasks. While there are many ways of doing this, Coon suggests delegating tasks according to each person’s skills and expertise. A sibling with experience in the medical field could take on all of the doctor’s appointments, for example. Or the person with good business sense might be able to handle legal issues or put together a budget. Make sure to include siblings who live a distance away. Even if they can’t help with hands-on care, they might be able to contribute funds for a housekeeper or plan respite visits every few months to give you and the other siblings a break.
- Don’t expect total equality. It’s not likely that you’ll divvy up tasks equally. This is okay, says Kaufman. “It’s more important to work together as much as possible and help alleviate some of the stress on each other.” Don’t think of it as an equal or nothing arrangement, or you’re likely to be disappointed.
Family Dynamics Can Complicate Caregiving
Keep in mind that it’s normal to experience tension when siblings are faced with caring for their parents. Childhood jealousies, rivalries and old 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 your siblings want. It’s 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 moving past communication difficulties is family mediation. Mediation is an informal process in which a neutral third party helps people to better understand their individual interests and needs so that they can agree upon a workable solution to a problem. This process empowers families to better understand one another and devise their own solutions. To find a mediator, ask your attorney for a referral or contact your local senior center or Area Agency on Aging.
Even if you’re successful in achieving a better distribution of responsibilities, it’s important to continue communicating. Hold regular family meetings to ensure all siblings are aware of any changes in your parent’s condition and 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 for your parents.”