Handling Sibling Criticism During the Holidays

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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 are 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 better manage Dad’s medications. They’ll dole out their veiled (or not so veiled) criticism of how you are managing your parents’ finances, maintaining the house, handling activities of daily living 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 to take 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 caregivers who are looking after 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 is worth noting that this time together may be a valuable opportunity for improving communication and collaboration within the entire family.

Asking 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 is 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 will reach your limit. Do yourself a favor and ask for help well before you think you need it.

Why Siblings Offer Criticism Instead of Aid

Asking doesn’t always bring results, though. 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 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 have 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 & 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 is highly likely that you have 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 have seen fellow caregivers use. Last year, 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 he or she had 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 was not 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 would be responsible for either handling the parents’ care personally or making other arrangements 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. 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 would 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 are 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 are 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 is 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.

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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79 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.
Mine never show up so whatever they say they can say to themselves because I don't have that discussion, If we did they sure wouldn't like what I have to say. you could call me BLUNT to the point of don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. i found out that friends are more family and more help than "family" are. so I am blessed in either case as mother would say I have too many friends well hate to say it but she doesn't have enough family. hmm food for thought since food is what we will be having a lot of LOL sometimes I crack me up