Siblings can be like night and day. Our personalities are as different as our individual interests, passions and professions. When it comes to caring for parents in their old age, it should come as no surprise that siblings’ ideas for providing quality care can be startlingly different. These conflicts of interest and strategy can quickly lead to deep rifts between brothers and sisters, spawning feelings of hurt, betrayal, disgust and resentment that last for years.
Each family and caregiving situation are different, but there are many common obstacles that we caregivers encounter throughout our individual journeys. An important lesson that many learn far too late in the game is that we must not let damaged relationships and negativity prevent us from providing quality care or achieving our own personal happiness. This is my story of overcoming resentment toward my siblings as a family caregiver.
Caregiving Is Rarely “Fair”
As my parents began to reach their golden years and need more assistance, my siblings and I realized the need to support them in some manner. Somehow, I became responsible for seeing them every day and involved in their comings and goings. When Mom and Dad became markedly less independent, I was the one who drove them to appointments, assessed and provided for their medical and personal needs, ensured that they were eating well, and so much more.
My siblings lived over a thousand miles away, and I began to feel jealous of the freedom they had. I was angry that I was tasked with all these responsibilities and that my mother emotionally clung to me like a six-year-old. It was as if I did not get to choose my role as a family caregiver while my brothers carried on with life as usual. I found it infuriating how unevenly the burden of caregiving was spread among us kids. What I didn’t yet realize was that these festering feelings were taking a serious toll on me and my relationships with my family.
Acknowledging the Roots of Your Resentment
At first glance, one might immediately write my siblings off as being uncaring and self-involved. I must clarify that my brothers were not emotionally detached from our parents by any means. They loved them and love me. They cared about our well-being and were thankful for the difficult job that I had taken on. However, there is another side of this story that needs to be told.
In my particular situation, I held onto resentment for a number of years because I didn’t think my siblings were doing their part to care for our parents. Eventually, I came to the realization that my idea of caregiving is just that: mine. It dawned on me one day that I was the one who committed to having our parents move in with me. My siblings never forced this decision. I was the one who thought the only way parents should age is in their own home or under an adult child’s roof. This was my idea and forcing my idea on my siblings had tilted the scales from the very beginning. They, in turn, followed my lead because of their empathy and the fact that they could not be physically present to take on a more active role.
What’s more is that I finally realized how silly it was to resent the unfairness of it all when I had determined how Mom and Dad’s needs would be met. This unchecked resentment prevented me from opening lines of communication and explaining that I wanted and needed my siblings’ support in whatever forms they could give it. As a result, my parents and I trudged along without help unnecessarily. Could my siblings have stepped up unasked? Of course. But in their minds, I had seized control and they assumed all was taken care of. They felt shut out of caregiving.
Communication is Key for Preventing and Overcoming Caregiving Challenges
Another factor that came into play was that both siblings are male (a third has since passed away). I believe there is a difference between male and female children that affects how we approach caring for our aging parents. While this may be a “hasty generalization,” and I acknowledge that there are many devoted, nurturing male caregivers out there, I have found that adult daughters often take on the caregiving role for their aging parents. On the other hand, I know of men and women who have female siblings and still find themselves shouldering most of the burden due to indifference or physical distance.
Individual personalities and family dynamics have a huge impact on the success of caregiving. Some adult children simply do not want to be involved and don’t seem to care that all the responsibility is placed on one brother or sister. Some people cannot bear to see their parents grow old, so they keep their distance. I can’t imagine having to deal with those scenarios, and I have complete empathy for sole caregivers caught in these situations.
There is something truly amazing about family caregivers that spurs us to pick up this baton and run with it as soon as we are needed. Difficulties arise, though, when we harbor unspoken expectations that our other family members will be posted up along the way, awaiting the tradeoff and ready to provide even a fraction of their fair share of the work. Regardless of the plans we make as a family, I believe that deep down we all hope our siblings will realize the sacrifices we make and step up to support our parents and us as their caregivers. With time and immense pressure, our disappointment turns to resentment, anger and animosity.
Some people are not cut out to be caregivers, and I fully respect that choice. However, it is still crucial for everyone in the family to communicate continuously about what level of involvement they are comfortable with. This may include providing hands-on care, visiting, handling logistics, conducting research, buying groceries, giving rides, contributing financially, making doctor’s appointments, calling frequently, ordering caregiving supplies, etc. If everyone is up front about their own personal commitments and the expectations they have of others on the care team, then there is far less room for disappointment. The outcome may still be upsetting, yes, but at least everyone started out on the same page. Breakdowns in communication are a common cause of hurt feelings in caregiving scenarios.
Learning to Let Go of Destructive Feelings
For several years, I was disappointed in my siblings for their failure to support our parents and me. I look back now and think of this time as unnecessary and detrimental to our family. I was only able to let go of these destructive emotions by acknowledging that they hindered what I could do for my aging parents. I played a part in how these feelings came to be and allowed them to continue influencing my attitude, the care I provided, and my day-to-day life.
Examining our own feelings and motivations objectively can be very difficult, but it can also be an eye-opening experience. Too often we cast blame and criticism on others. Yes, these judgements are certainly warranted at times. Some siblings bilk their parents out of their savings, don’t make even a meager effort to maintain a relationship, or fail to ever help communicate with or support their primary caregiver sibling. Some even undermine the sole caregiver and attempt to sabotage their hard work without any regard for their parents’ well-being. There are so many heartbreaking stories about how families have fallen apart under the stress of providing care. It’s important to understand that even in situations where bitterness and disgust are warranted, these emotions can still taint your outlook, the care you provide, and your ability to achieve inner peace.
Letting go of the anger, resentment and jealousy that not only came between my siblings and me, but also harmed my own well-being, was a life-changing decision. I have a sense of inner peace now that previously did not exist. I am grateful that I was able to realize that my way is not the only way, and that my brothers are not at fault for not fully embracing my choices.
Honestly, I think it took the actual experience of seeing my parents decline and understanding what keeping your aging parents at home really entails before I could let go of my anger, resentment and pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a caregiver. Doing so allowed me to be kinder to myself and focus on the issue at hand: caring for Mom and Dad. It also enabled me to reestablish relationships with my siblings and feel comfortable with asking for their input and assistance.
Letting Go Doesn’t Always Have a Happy Ending
An important message that I wish for families to take away from my experience is that when we see things only from our own perspective and allow negative thoughts to feed unhealthy attitudes, we incur a great deal of emotional damage. This damage affects us personally and seeps into our relationships with others—our care recipients, our significant others, our children, etc. Bitterness and caregiver stress can alter our personalities and ability to see things clearly.
Healing, communication, forgiveness, a clean slate or even cordiality may not be possible in every contentious sibling relationship. Disappointment is a natural reaction, especially when our parents yearn for their children to be close and support one another. But we owe it to ourselves not to ruminate on all the ways we feel slighted by our siblings. If a brother or sister is, in fact, a wholly negative influence, there’s no shame in taking steps to protect our well-being and that of our parents. Setting firm boundaries and going no-contact are viable options that can allow us to push forward with our mission to provide quality care and focus on our own physical and mental health.