When Anne’s father was dying, she couldn’t visit him. Pandemic restrictions at the nursing home meant that only her sister, who lived nearby, was welcome. Her sister also had permission to talk to the doctors, while Anne, who lived on the other side of the country, did not. Unfortunately, when Anne tried to help from afar, such as by dealing with the doctors or insurance issues, she was not provided a clear way to do so. “My sister was like ‘I’ll just deal with it,’” Anne said. “I felt unincluded a lot, but I didn’t want to complain and be needy. It was really hard.” And because her sister was handling so much, Anne felt guilty about not contributing more, but also frustrated “because as hard as it was for my sister to do the work, at least she got to see him.”
These types of sibling issues are common when a parent’s health declines. Often, adult children fall back into their old family roles. For example, as a child, Anne was more accommodating, while her sister tended to be more demanding, and these patterns repeated during the years they spent caring for their father.
The challenge of watching a parent become severely ill and eventually die inevitably brings up difficult emotions. It hurts to watch the deterioration of someone so central to your life, and that pain when combined with unresolved issues from childhood can make other emotions erupt too. In many cases, the sibling who takes on the primary caregiving responsibilities can be resentful that their siblings aren’t contributing more, but often, as in Anne’s case, they don’t make it easy for their siblings to help.
The main caregiver may not even know what type of help they want. For example, sometimes their main need may be emotional support, such as regular time to vent or cry about their stresses, rather than assistance with the actual day-to-day caregiving. Other times, more money may be needed or a respite from caregiving might be the main requirement. They also may be unaware that their more distant siblings need things too, such as more information about their parent’s health issues, a way to be of assistance, and a voice in the decision-making process.
So what do you do if you’re facing these types of issues? Here are some ideas:
1) Talk to Each Other
This isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. Regular family meetings, whether in person or by phone/Zoom, can be one way to do this. Set a monthly date with a time limit, such as one hour, to make these discussions a normal part of life. In the meetings, an agenda may be useful. A portion of the meeting might lay out the parent’s evolving health and financial issues with time afterwards to consider how each sibling can contribute. It’s also important to allow each family member time to share their challenges (with the caveat that sharing cannot involve angry accusations), and it’s vital not to judge what each person shares. Some families may prefer an informal arrangement, while for others, structure may be essential. In many cases, a therapist can be a welcome guide for the process. Remember, conditions change too. Initial issues, such as differing views about how much aid a parent needs, might shift to considering a nursing facility, and that change can happen rapidly, so take some time to talk about how each sibling feels about potential complications.
2) Who Should Take the Lead?
Often the role of primary caregiver falls onto one child, due to proximity or because they happen to be out of work. Or sometimes it happens gradually as one sibling takes on more and more of the necessary tasks. Before this habit becomes entrenched, it’s helpful to pause and consider what will work in the long term for both the primary caregiver and their siblings. Caregiving on average is required for many years, so what works for the short term usually will not be easy to maintain over five to ten years. If a family member notices that an unhealthy caregiving pattern has been established, it’s fine to re-evaluate and begin anew. Consider whether the main caregiver, and usually there is a main caregiver, might warrant financial compensation from their siblings and also what support tasks siblings might reasonably be able to do. A facilitator may be of assistance in navigating these confusing issues.
3) Consider Emotions
When a parent is ailing, emotions can manifest differently in each sibling. One may be inclined to panic, while another may be in denial about the severity of the issue. A third may be seeking approval—working themselves to exhaustion to please a parent who might not be able to be pleased. Whatever distress is occurring, it’s normal. Kids seek their parents’ love and approval, and emotions may fly at the best of times. When a parent is slowly dying, it’s that much harder. So, try to accept your siblings as they are and refrain from wishing that they were different people. Take a breath and calm down if a simple issue is turning into a battle. If you’re needing their help, be both realistic and specific about your requests, and listen if they can’t accommodate them. None of you is to blame for the situation, but all of you are suffering. Keep that in mind, and if you feel inclined to explode, try to breathe and step away instead.
Remember that in most cases, your siblings will still be there, long after your parents are gone. Don’t let your parent’s illness or death drive a wedge between you. Even in the best of circumstances, angry moments between you may occur, but you can find your way through them, and both they and you are worth the effort.
Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well!
Kathi Koll © 2022
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