Siblings Who Feel Shut Out of Caregiving

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There’s a great deal of anger in the world of family caregiving over siblings who don’t help care for their aging parents. Very often, it’s the adult child who lives closest to Mom and Dad who ends up assuming the role of primary caregiver, especially in cases where some degree of hands-on care is required. While this may be a logistically sound arrangement, it doesn’t mean this adult child is best suited emotionally, financially or practically for the job.

Even the most well-prepared caregiver needs assistance and reinforcements from time to time. If one’s siblings cannot be physically present, they should be able to help financially, with paperwork or in some other remote capacity. They should do something, but they often don’t. Many times, it’s because siblings just don’t want to be bothered. They assume that the brother or sister who’s closest has things under control, and they don’t have a clue about how much time, effort and sacrifice are involved in caregiving.

While MIA siblings are the overwhelming norm, some families have very different experiences. This article offers a glimpse into another perspective on caregiving: that oft maligned long-distance siblings may actually be excluded by primary caregivers.

Why Some Caregivers Prefer Going It Alone

There are countless reasons why some family caregivers wind up being solely responsible for their aging parents’ care. It’s important to understand that every family’s dynamics and history are unique, and each family member has their own reasons and motivations for choosing to participate in or walk away from caregiving. I’ve spoken with many siblings who have felt barred from receiving updates and partaking in decision-making. These are a few of the most common reasons these family members have been excluded from caregiving.

When Caregiving Becomes Your Identity

Family caregivers take their role very seriously, and for good reason, but sometimes this role becomes more than just a noble commitment. Sometimes adult children turn their lives up-side down and make caregiving a defining aspect of their personality and worth. Because caregiving is who they are, it is unthinkable to have anyone else step in to help or provide respite, no matter how exhausted and burned out they may be. Not only does this prevent siblings from helping and keep the primary caregiver from receiving vital breaks, but it also increases the likelihood that the caregiver will feel lost once their role comes to an end.

Caregiver “Martyr Syndrome”

In a similar vein, sometimes caregiver “martyr syndrome” kicks in and the in-town child doesn’t really give their out-of-town siblings a chance to participate. We all know someone who actually loves complaining about anything and everything going on in their life. They’d be devastated if something actually lived up to their expectations, because then there wouldn’t be anything to gripe about. This same phenomenon can happen to caregivers as well. They have an ego investment in caring for their parent(s) and love the attention and sympathy they get from friends, neighbors and colleagues. Involving siblings or accepting their help only undermines their ability to complain and dilutes the praise they receive for their selfless service, so other family members are purposely kept out of the loop.

Reluctance to Invite Complications into the Mix

Control and an aversion to drama may also be an issue for the primary caregiver. If siblings have not been interested or active in helping, either in person or from afar, it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around accepting their involvement later in the game. The primary caregiver has already identified their parents’ needs, established a routine and made changes in their life to ensure a plan of care is followed. But sometimes it takes out-of-town siblings much longer to realize the degree of a parent’s decline and the widespread changes that their caregiving sibling has had to make to accommodate these changes.

A primary caregiver’s main objective is to protect their care recipient and ensure their wellbeing. It only makes sense that someone in this position would be resentful and hesitant to accept a sibling’s sudden desire for involvement. Furthermore, if/when a sibling finally opens their eyes to the situation, they often make the mistake of showing their interest by offering suggestions for improving the care plan, which are usually interpreted as unfounded criticisms. In still other cases, a sibling may bring more drama and annoyances to the situation than constructive assistance.

Caring for Difficult Parents

Many adult children struggle to navigate caring for parents who were neglectful or abusive throughout their childhood and even into adulthood. These traits are often lifelong, and demanding elders are no walk in the park to care for. Perhaps the primary caregiver is still trying to obtain their parents’ love and approval, so they refuse to let their siblings contribute to the caregiving process. This can cause the caregiver to get sucked into the mire of complaining that their brothers and sisters never help, and that they must do it all on their own. If this mindset progresses far enough, it can lead to the identity issues and martyr-like behavior described above.

Reflecting on Interactions with Siblings

Old sibling dynamics can bubble up and make parent care a divisive family issue rather than a collaborative one. Caregivers must honestly ask themselves if they have truly made an effort to include their sibling(s). Has a family conference been requested? Have requests been made for help with specific tasks, such as bill paying, paperwork or financial assistance? Are all siblings fully aware of the gravity of your parents’ health status, care needs and financial standing?

There are some siblings who live far from their parents and feel totally shut out. They get frantic about the situation but don’t know how to approach the primary caregiver without making them feel distrusted, criticized or threatened. It’s important to be aware that there are multiple sides to every situation. If you are caring for your parents and have siblings who are not in the loop, take a moment to look closely at your past interactions with them and your own motives for accepting this role. Ask a trusted friend or a counselor for an objective opinion. See if you have truly given your siblings a chance to be part of the team.

If you have directly and respectfully asked for help and communicated the reality of your parents’ situation and your own to no avail, then it is likely that your siblings aren’t interested in getting involved. In most cases, caregivers are well founded in complaining that their siblings have blown off the responsibility of aging parents and underestimated (greatly) the sacrifices they make. Many siblings would rather not know, as they want to keep living their own lives as they have always done.

On the other hand, if you find that you may not have been open to receiving help, dig a little deeper to find out why that is and how you can move past it. Nobody is perfect. You may realize that it is time to extend an olive branch and tell your sibling(s) specifically what help you and your parents need. Give them a chance to be part of the team. It could be that the whole family dynamic will start to change with this one small gesture and the caregiver and care receiver will benefit greatly from much needed help. The worst case scenario is that your effort is ignored or rejected, but at least you will know you tried your best to do the right thing.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

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78 Comments

Yep, I agree. I cannot help that my father now feels completely comfortable with me and not at all comfortable with his other children. I did not want it this way and regardless whether anyone thinks I'm erecting my own statue in my honor - I'm not. I take this responsibility very seriously, but will not subject my father (altzheimers/dementia/or just plain "old") to criticism or lack of patience. As I said, one family member literally threw him out of the house. Okay, said and done... let's move on. Okay, how do we do this? I don't expect everyone to do things "my way", but the barrage of questions/comments are intrusive to me and offensive. This is my home, and I have elected to have my father live with me, not all of my other siblings. I am trying to stay objective because yes, of course, they love him. I know that - what's more he know's that. Typically, and this is what is going on in our family, there is more going on than what anyone wants to admit. Guilt/power/resentment/etc... Family dynamics change so much when we get older. We are all adults which puts us all on the same rung of the ladder. The older one's still view the younger siblings as "the babies", even though we have overcome obstacles and challenges in our own lives. It never changes. Well, I didn't get to choose my birth order, or theirs. I'm only trying to live my life and at present it includes my dad. His needs over shadow mine in every sense of the word. But it is two-way street. Those that live away or choose not to become involved cannot come in at the 11th hour and give their opinion(s). Where have you been? There needs to be 100% respect and support given to the primary caregiver. If not, then as the other children, you take Mom/Dad in - uproot your own life, change your relationship with your spouse - expect your job/boss to understand when something happens... Take all of it. I don't want a medal. I want respect!
Finally got Mom into 3 days of adult daycare (9 to 3), 6 hours each day. I also have an out of work CNA help me 3 days a week from 3 to 7, so that I can prepare dinner and eat with my husband. My sister thinks I have lots of free time now! 24/7 = 168 hours/week. So if I get 18 hours of daycare time and 12 hours of CNA help, that ONLY leaves me with 138 hours of caring for Mom, and 2 households to cook, clean, and shop for! I guess I should count myself lucky! NOT! I have 6 siblings and major trouble trying to get one of them to even help out on 1 weekend day so that my husband and I can leave the house for a while.
Some of them think I enjoy being in charge, but the rest know how hard I have it. I found I have to be in charge of things. If Mom is not handled the same way by everyone, it throws her off for days, and I am the one that picks up the pieces. Maybe there are a few martyrs out there, but I'm sure most care givers feel the way I do. We don't do it for the praise or the glory. What glory is there in dressing and feeding your parent? How about wet bed linens? Plenty of glory in that! All you care givers out there, hang in there.
I am the caregiver for my father, but it wasn't always this way. My father was living with another family member who literally threw him out of the house. I was neatly accepted to pick up the ball from that point on. Other family members first stood on one side then the other. At present, there is so much dissention in the family that I don't think it will ever be whole. I suppose you could say there is resentment on both sides. It has gotten extremely terrible. I never wanted this and never asked for it. It was put upon me and yes, now I am protective of the role that I play in my father's life, but unless you know the entire dynamics of the family, I find it better to stop pointing fingers. I will never do a good enough job in my siblings eyes, but after 12 months of my father living with myself and my husband, I am protective of him and trying to maintain a life that I used to have without interference from the rest of my family. If that sounds like a martyr, then I will wear the label proudly.