Trying to get an uninvolved sibling to give you a hand with caring for your aging parent(s) is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of caregiving. Countless family caregivers take issue with the fact that a disproportionate amount of responsibility falls on them, while their siblings continue living their lives relatively unaffected by their parents’ declining health.

I’m no stranger to this scenario. My only sibling, my older brother, only lived 30 minutes from our mom and dad. I lived over 400 miles away from them, yet I was the one who gave up my life for a year to spearhead their care. You think I’d be bitter about this, but I’m not. Not anymore, at least…

When I first became a caregiver, I was so angry about the unfairness of the situation. I was always thinking, “Hey, these are his parents, too!” After some time being irritated with my brother’s lack of involvement, I finally took a step back and realized that all those negative emotions weren’t helping me one bit. Furthermore, my annoyance with him wasn’t exactly encouraging him to roll up his sleeves and join me in the caregiving trenches. I decided I had to try to see things from his perspective to understand why he was keeping his distance from the situation and figure out how I could get him to help me out.

If I had to do it all over again, here’s what I’d do:

First, I’d realize that my brother (who is nine years older than me) had a completely different upbringing than I did. He hadn’t gotten the love and support that I’d gotten from our controlling father. I’d remind myself of all the times Dad raged at him and try to be more understanding of the boundaries that my brother had put in place over the years when it came to interacting with our parents.

Instead of asking him to help with hands-on caregiving, I’d respect his boundaries and ask him to help ME with a few errands and tasks. This would have fallen more into his comfort zone and therefore been a more appealing way of contributing to the family.

I’d keep a running list of all the things I needed to get done and then the next time I saw him or talked to him on the phone, I’d ask him directly to handle one of these tasks. (This list also comes in handy whenever another family member or friend says, “Oh, I am so sorry about what you are going through—is there anything I can do to help?” Just pull out a copy and tell them to pick an errand!)

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My to-do list would look something like this:

  • Take the car to be serviced, have tires rotated and filled with gas
  • Repair or replace the broken lamp that Dad threw at me
  • Repair the curtains that are coming off the rods around the house from Dad pulling on them
  • Shop for small items like a new battery for my watch
  • Take the folks’ clothes to the tailor for hemming, mending and fixing of buttons
  • Garden, prune trees and mow the lawn
  • Take stuff to the dump
  • Organize the pantry, garage, closet, drawers, etc.
  • Pick up dry cleaning, medications at the pharmacy or groceries
  • Call or write notes to relatives and friends to update them on Dad’s health
  • Make meals for the freezer
  • Rent a carpet cleaner and shampoo the carpets
  • Schedule appointments
  • Research medications, healthcare products, diseases or local nursing homes
  • Evaluate the best local adult day care programs
  • Take me out to lunch!

Accommodating your siblings is probably the last thing on your mind while caregiving, but sometimes you must give a little to get a little. Instead of simply assuming their lack of involvement stems from laziness or indifference and writing off a brother or sister, try to consider why they may not feel as comfortable handling hands-on care tasks as you do. How did your childhoods differ? Are their relationships with your parents fraught in any way? Are they better at setting boundaries? Are their boundaries reasonable? You may conclude that selfishness or disinterest are to blame in the end, but at least you tried to see things from their point of view.

At the end of the day, everyone has choices to make. If you choose to assume the responsibility of caring for your parent(s), then you and you alone must accept the consequences of this decision. Ideally, this job would be shared equally between siblings, but life is rarely so fair. Just because you have stepped into this role does not mean that your siblings must follow suit.

The bottom line is that you can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do. If you truly want and need a sibling’s assistance, work with them to find a happy medium. Even the smallest contributions can help you achieve and maintain balance throughout this journey. Just be sure to keep your expectations realistic.