How To Talk To Your Siblings About Your Aging Parents

Eldercare is challenging enough on its own. Then throw in family dynamics and the complexity increases. Unequal distribution of work. Multiple and conflicting opinions. Varying degrees of skill and compassion. Siblings, and in-laws and long lost relatives, oh my! To help you navigate this new level of family dysfunction, here’s some advice on how to talk to your siblings about your aging parents – seven steps to be exact.

1. Inquire. The first step in talking to your sibling about your aging parents is to ask them what they think. “Do you think we should we talk about Mom?” “Do you think Dad’s doing okay on his own?” Inquire as to what they are thinking and observing. This simple first step will give you a sense of whether or not they are starting to notice or think about what you are noticing and worrying about.

2. Assess. Based on your sibling’s response, you can assess whether or not you are aligned in your observations and ideas or if you are seeing totally different things. Maybe you think your mother’s memory is failing and your brother thinks forgetfulness in old age is no big deal. Or maybe you think your father is unable to manage his household on his own but your sister thinks he is just fine at home. It’s okay if you see things differently. You don’t need alignment to move forward; you just need to know where others stand.

3. Accept. Once you assess your siblings’ points of view, accept them. Caregiving is no time for magical thinking. If you and your brother have never seen eye to eye, this is not the time to expect you will start. If your sister has always been disorganized, this is no time to think her executive functioning skills will improve. If you think your parents need more care and your siblings don’t agree, accept that perspective and decide how you are going to move forward. Control what you can control. You can’t get your sister to do something she doesn’t want to do or doesn’t deem necessary. And you don’t want to waster your energy trying. Much better to determine how you will proceed given the information you have.

4. Assign. If your siblings are willing to help – based on steps 1 and 2, assign the tasks that need to be done. Keep step 3 in mind when making assignments. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We also all have different levels of responsibility we are willing to take on. If your sister has filed bankruptcy, don’t have her take over your parents’ finances. If your brother lives 2,000 miles way, don’t make him the healthcare proxy.

5. Lower your standards. If you are one of the lucky ones, a caregiving adult child whose siblings want to help in supporting your aging parents, then make sure you make it possible. You cannot expect that your sister will handle things the same way you might. That’s okay! As long as your parents’ needs are being met – and no one is being hurt, or abused, or stressed out, then lower your standards and let your siblings handle their assignments in their way. Done is done. And good enough is good enough.

6. Ask. If you want help from your siblings, the simple thing to do is ask them for help. “Wait, what? I took the steps above. I have to ask again?” Sometimes, yes. Sometimes people forget. Or get distracted. Or their lives go haywire. Or they get bored. So what. Now what? Now you have to ask again. No drama. No storytelling. Just ask. And repeat steps 2 through 4.

7. Call the pros. “But what if I tried all that and things are still just so complicated?” Maybe you’re fighting or maybe there is significant inheritance issues complicating things. Maybe your parents are playing you and your sister against each other. Families are complicated. So maybe it’s time to get some professional help. Family mediators, Geriatric care managers and elder law attorneys are all skilled in working with dynamic family situations. If you can’t go it alone, don’t go it alone.

And for more on siblings and aging parents, check out The Truth About Siblings and Caregiving.

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