Handling Sibling Criticism During the Holidays

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You've put your life on hold. You've given until it hurts. You're doing everything you can to help your aging parents live a quality life. And, for the most part, you are succeeding.

Until the holidays, that is. That's when your siblings will come to see the parents they haven't seen all year. They'll come with their advice about how you could better manage your time and do more for Mom. They'll come with their advice on how you could better control Dad's medications. They'll come with their veiled (or not so veiled) criticism about how you are managing your elder's assets, even though your parents are still calling the shots on most financial issues.

It's enough to make a saint swear. Where were they when you had to figure out someone to stay with your sick child so you could take Dad to the emergency room? Where were they when Mom blithely signed up and paid a full year in advance (because it was cheaper than monthly) for a gym/spa combination that neither she nor Dad could possibly use? Where were they when your husband needed surgery and help recovering, but Dad still needed weekly trips to the clinic to have his blood tested because of his medications?

It seems they were really busy with work. They have so many responsibilities, you know. And Junior is playing varsity football and they really need to be there to root him on. Oh, your Jane is first chair clarinet in band? How nice. Well, missing a band concert now and then isn't so bad. It's not like you cheer or anything.

Get Help From Your Siblings With Caregiving

So it goes when it comes to siblings and elder care. Not always, of course. I was fortunate in that, though I was the primary caregiver to all of our many family elders, my sister was only 40 miles away and she did her best to come in to visit once a week. The fact that I didn't take time off when she did visit was my problem, not hers.

One thing I've finally learned is that it's the caregiver's responsibility to ask for help, and I wasn't very good at that. Asking early on is best, before everyone is trained to believe you have nothing to do but be the caregiver. However, given the sneaky way of slowly expanding in scope that caregiving has, it's not always easy to know when to let your need for help known.

Also, asking doesn't always bring results. I interviewed 20 caregivers when I wrote "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories." A full two thirds of the people I interviewed had sibling problems. And of those, many complained most bitterly about the siblings who were always too busy to help, but then when they did visit, often during the holidays, they would spend their time criticizing the decisions you made for your elders and how you did things for them.

Here they were, fresh from home, telling you how you should be handling Dad's medications. You didn't even get a chance to explain that Dad would play a shell game with the daily pill box you set up, putting one pill here, another there, until no one had a clue what he'd taken and what he hadn't. Yet, when you mention that maybe it's time for assisted living and/or some in-home help, they start screaming about the cost.

The last you heard, the money belonged to your parents. If your parents are agreeable to assisted living, then maybe that's what they need. But it saves so much money to have you shoulder the whole responsibility, so the siblings, with an eye on inheritance, often like that idea best.

Even if they would agree to assisted living for your parents, you'd still be responsible for emergencies, for bookkeeping, for setting up or providing yourself the "extra" services such as medication monitoring, doctor appointments and shopping that aren't covered by most assisted living centers.

It's made you wonder for the last couple of years. Mom and Dad get excited about the assisted living center that some friends live in. There are things they'd miss about their house, but there are so many things that are a nuisance. They see their friends taking part in activities and having a great social life, while their own neighbors have all moved on or died, and now they are surrounded by young families. None of their old neighbors are around anymore.

Get Them to Appreciate You As Mom & Dad's Caregiver

But then the holidays come around, the siblings visit, and suddenly Mom and Dad are saying, no, they don't want to move into assisted living. It's too expensive. And you do such a good job taking care of them they really don't need more help.

Hmmm, last year your brother and his wife were the ones questioning your decision to get Dad's hearing aids replaced. And your sister was criticizing the way you transferred Mom, after her hip replacement, with the help of a gait belt. She thought it was too clinical, and that she knew a better way. You sure didn't feel all that appreciated the last time they came. And you're pretty sure that this time won't be any different.

What do you do with all of this? You can sit on it and fume and carry resentments. You can try to have a calm family meeting and discuss all of the issues. But you've tried both of these and neither is good. Fuming only hurts you, and family meetings turn into blame sessions, with old issues from childhood thrown in for good measure.

Last year, one smart woman I know wrote a letter to her siblings ahead of the holiday visit. She praised each individual heavily for any tiny bit of help he or she had provided – and some of this was a stretch. She told them how much she appreciated the help she knew they wanted to give, even though it was not possible for them to give more.

Then she listed the things each sibling could do when he or she arrived, knowing that they'd want to help. One brother could take over bill paying. A sister could check out local resources for respite care, since they didn't want the parents to move to assisted living and this caregiver couldn't shoulder all the responsibility anymore. And she told them that she was taking two weeks off in March, so they would be responsible for the parents during that time. She firmly stated she would not be available.

Strangely enough, that Christmas all of the siblings ended up touring assisted living facilities in the area, and the parents moved that same spring to the one where their best friends lived. The siblings learned to accept the fact that the parent's money was there for the parents, and likely there would be no inheritance. And they learned that they could no longer count on the one sister to shoulder the full burden.

Yes, she was still geographically the closest, and was the one on call. But her strong stance made the family take stock and realize that something needed to be done. All are happier now, including the parents.

How to Make Your Caregiving Needs Known to Family

How will you be treated this year, when the family comes to town? Will you be shown respect and concern for all you do? Or will you be criticized by siblings who, likely out of unrecognized guilt, treat you as if you don't do anything right? If it's the latter, you need to plan now to take a firm stance. You need to protect yourself. And if you can't do it alone, you need to ask for help, with a third party to control the group.

A pastor or Rabi might help. Certainly, a geriatric care manager would be great, if you can afford one. But even a friend of your family may be able to help bring some understanding and peace to your holiday by helping everyone understand what needs to be done. Some peace in the family – along with some help from the siblings – would be a most welcome holiday gift for most caregivers.

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.

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82 Comments

For the 3 years she lived in my home, Mom would take advantage of my quick trips to the C-Town supermarket across the street to call my oldest and youngest sisters to complain about the so-called "Hell" I was putting her through. From "I'm a prisoner" to "He makes me do my own laundry," her time with me was a constant re-enactment of the Passion. She was, however, careful not to mention she had practically taken over my life, my children, my house, and chased away any lady-callers by sometimes pretending she was my wife.

On her last Christmas Eve with me, I was surprised all 13 sisters, part-time husbands, and ghetto screechy children wanted to see "Nana" so badly. In a nutshell, they all came to protect her by ganging up on me. After 4 hours, I was tired of defending myself and explaining to everyone Mom's crying and faux fainting spells were nothing but one big act. I told her co-conspirators to help her pack save her by taking her with them, but no one volunteered. All of a sudden she was "better off with me" and everyone was infused by a cheery, amicable Holiday spirit. A week later I placed Mom in a senior citizens home where she could do whatever she wanted. I had had enough.
My older brother made the mistake of giving me advice after watching me change bedridden mom's pamper without helping. He had the nerve to tell how to do it. I immediately stopped cleaning mom's bottom, turned to him and snapped, "Do you want to take over?" And I stood there waiting for him to answer. My siblings know that I don't bluff. If he had jokingly said, "yes.", I would have immediately taken off my gloves and walk away. He had this shocked look when I asked him that. He mutely shook his head no. After that, he never offered an advice when it came to mom. sigh.. I have been here, watched the govt caregivers sponge bath mom for over 20 years. He has never taken care of a bedridden person. Until you're willing to get down and dirty and Do the Deed, then don't tell me what I should or should not do. I'm truly open to my siblings' 'expertise' if they are willing to Do it and not just verbalize it. Action speaks louder than words.
This says it all! Thank you for putting it into words. I have put on a smile and cooked a 25lb turkey every year so my parents could have a big family dinner at Thanksgiving. I was usually complimented on the food, but kind of treated like hired help by my siblings. Sometimes when I would try to join in a conversation they would stop talking. I had small children when I started taking care of my Mom, and took care of my dad during their middle school and high school years. My husband had 2 heart attacks and 5 back surgeries during this time too. My father passed away in August and I am proud I could help he and Mom on the last part of their journey but, my siblings will never know the pressure put on the caregiver. We are the lifeline for our parents, the responsibility is put on our shoulders. We need hugs and understanding, not criticism. This forum has been such a blessing!