Family caregivers often put their lives on hold to care for their loved ones. In cases where adult children are caring for their parents, sibling dynamics can add yet another layer of complexity to the situation.

You’re doing everything you can to help your aging parent(s) maintain a high quality of life. For the most part, you’re succeeding, but then the holiday season arrives. This is the time of year when previously uninvolved siblings arrive for a rare family visit.

They often come with their advice about how you could handle your time better, do more for Mom, and manage Dad’s medications. They’ll dole out their veiled (or not-so-veiled) criticism of how you are handling your parents’ finances, maintaining the house, assisting with activities of daily living (ADLs), and more.

It’s enough to make a saint swear. Suddenly they are there in the middle of things, acting as if they understand every aspect of your parents’ care, your schedule, and how the house should be run. But where were they when you had to find someone to stay with your sick child at the last minute so you could take Dad to the emergency room? Where were they when you desperately needed a long weekend off from caregiving? Where were they when your car broke down and Mom needed weekly trips to the doctor for blood testing to ensure her medications were working properly?

It seems they were just really busy with work, spouses, kids, extracurricular activities, vacations, and the like. You may be juggling these things yourself in addition to caring for your folks. This is the unfortunate reality for many family caregivers who are helping their parents. Most of the caregiving responsibilities fall to one adult child — typically the one who lives closest to Mom and Dad.

While you may be dreading added stress and sibling tension that often come with the holidays, it’s worth noting that this time together may be a valuable opportunity for improving communication and collaboration within the entire family.

Asking siblings for help with caregiving

One thing I’ve finally learned is that it’s the caregiver’s responsibility to ask for help and use any assistance you get wisely. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to learn to request help and be able to disconnect from caregiving when I got the opportunity. Although I was the primary caregiver to all our elderly family members over the years, I was fortunate that my sister lived only 40 miles away and did her best to visit once a week. The fact that I didn’t take advantage of this “time off” during her visits was my problem, not hers. Don’t repeat my mistake and squander valuable respite when it comes along!

Furthermore, expecting family members and friends to automatically offer assistance and know what tasks they can help with will only lead to disappointment. Asking early on is best, before everyone’s convinced that you have nothing else to do except provide care. However, caregiving is notorious for sneaking up on people. The responsibilities can instantly increase, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and alone. It’s not always easy to anticipate needing assistance or when you’ll reach your limit. Do yourself a favor and ask for help long before you think you’ll need it.

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Why siblings offer criticism instead of aid

Asking doesn’t always bring results, though. I interviewed 20 family caregivers when I wrote Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. A full two-thirds of the people I interviewed had difficulties with their siblings. Of those, many complained most bitterly about brothers and sisters who were always too busy to help, but then when they did visit (often during the holidays), they would readily criticize the primary caregivers’ decisions and methods of handling daily care.

On the surface, their criticisms may hold merit. But, the truth of the matter is that they don’t understand the nuances of providing regular hands-on care for their parent(s). Spending three days with the family over Christmas is hardly enough time to become an expert at managing Dad’s medication regimen and realizing when he’s lost, hidden, or cheeked his pills. A sibling may complain that Mom smells a bit stale and looks unkempt, but it’s likely that they’ve never had to fight with her to get her to take a shower or change her clothes. Ironically, when you mention that it may be time for Mom and Dad to move to assisted living or hire professional in-home help, siblings start grumbling about the cost.

Even if your parents are agreeable to moving to a senior living community or bringing professional caregivers into the home, siblings may still rail against it. Opting for outside help may be the best option for both high quality care for your parents and respite for you, but those objectives may not top your brother or sister’s priority list. Having you shoulder the whole responsibility free of charge saves a great deal of money, so the siblings who refuse to chip in and/or have an eye on an inheritance often prefer to keep caregiving “in the family.”

Get them to appreciate you as Mom and Dad’s caregiver

When the holidays come around, family members arrive, and the critiques begin, there are two general paths that primary caregivers can follow. You can stew on these hurtful words, react poorly, and carry resentments, or you can try to have a calm family meeting and discuss these issues. It’s highly likely that you’ve tried both approaches, neither of which have produced lasting results. Harboring anger and frustration only hurts you and your relationships in the long run, and family meetings can turn into emotionally charged blame sessions, often with old childhood issues thrown in for good measure.

So, what other options do you have at your disposal? Preemptively standing up for yourself is one effective approach that I’ve seen fellow caregivers use. One smart woman I know wrote a letter to her siblings ahead of the annual family visit. She praised each sibling for any tiny bit of help they’d provided throughout the year. And yes, some of this was a stretch. She told them how much she appreciated the help she knew they wanted to give, even though it wasn’t possible for them to give more.

She then listed the specific tasks each sibling could do upon arriving for the holidays, knowing that they’d want to pitch in. One brother was chosen to handle paying the bills, for instance. She requested that a sister investigate local resources for respite care, since the siblings were adamant that their parents were to remain at home even though the primary caregiver could no longer shoulder all the responsibility. Lastly, this woman told her siblings that she was taking two weeks off in March and that they’d be responsible for either handling the parents’ care personally or making other arrangements during that time. She firmly stated she wouldn’t be available.

Strangely enough, all the siblings ended up touring assisted living facilities in the area that Christmas. The following spring, the parents moved to a senior living community where their best friends lived. The adult children learned to accept the fact that their parents’ money was to be used for their care and it was unlikely that they’d receive an inheritance. They also learned that they could no longer count on the one sister to shoulder the entire burden of providing care.

Yes, this woman was still geographically the closest to the parents, therefore she was still the one “on call.” But her strong stance made the entire family take a closer look at the situation and realize that something had to change. This approach was effective, and all are happier now, including the parents.

How to make your caregiving needs known

How will you be treated when the family comes to town this year? Will you be shown respect and concern for all you do? Or will you be criticized by siblings who, likely out of deep-seated guilt, treat you as if you can’t do anything right? If you’re anticipating the latter, you need to form a plan now to take a firm stance and stand up for yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so alone, then consider asking a third party for help.

A religious leader, geriatric care manager, or professional mediator would be an excellent addition to your plan if you’re nervous about group dynamics. Even a friend of your family may be able to use their objective point of view to help everyone understand what needs to be done and why. Bringing in a third party may seem odd, but if it’s effective, the result could be very beneficial for you and your parent(s). Some peace and understanding in the family — along with some help from your siblings — would be a most welcome holiday gift for many caregivers.