The Truth About Siblings and Caregiving

 

Caregivers and healthcare professionals know, “there’s always one.” In most families there is one sibling who shoulders most of the responsibility for caregiving. It doesn’t matter if you’re one of six or the only child. There’s always one.

Sometimes you become ‘the one’ because you are a natural leader or doer. Sometimes the role is yours because, admit it your bossy, and you don’t make lots of space for other siblings to help or have input. Sometimes your parents choose you and sometimes geography does. It doesn’t matter so much how you come to the role. What matters is how you handle it.

If you are ‘the one’ there are certain things you need to watch out for – besides burnout, of course. Beware these four traps: resentment, wishful thinking, indecision and indiscretion.

The four traps of caregiving with siblings

Resentment: It is easy to become resentful when you are ‘the one.’ “Where’s the help?” “Why is this on me?” “Why do they get a pass?” And of course, “This isn’t fair.” It’s not that your resentment isn’t justified – it very well could be. It’s just that negativity can eat you up. And when you are the caregiver, you need to take care of your self – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

When my parents were both hospitalized, I kept a spreadsheet of all the things I needed to do for them. There were 196 items on the list at one point. Plus I had my full-time job. Plus I had my kids. When one of my siblings would tell me they needed to take a break from our family crisis to buy groceries or do laundry it would make me crazy. I could feel the effect my resentment was having on me and I knew it was only going to make me sick or permanently damage relationships I wanted to preserve.

Unable at the time to seek the help of a professional therapist due to time and money constraints, I had to find a way to deal with my feelings. It was during my morning gratitude practice that I decided I’d rather be thankful that I was able to manage so much, than be resentful that I had to do so much. How lucky I was that I had the strength, stamina, resources and organizational skills to handle our family crisis. And who was I to expect everyone else would work the same way I did? We were all caring for our parents in our own best ways. This shift in how I thought about my responsibilities was huge for me. I was truly grateful for what I was able to do.

Wishful thinking: Even though I learned to be thankful for my role, my husband did not. “Why don’t you ask for help?” he’d say. “You have a family. Someone else needs to do that.” I understood where he was coming from, but I also knew he was practicing wishful thinking.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses. I am great at execution. I can manage logistics like nobody’s business. I have mad Google skills. Couple that with my assertiveness and I am often the best person to ask questions of oncologists, negotiate assisted living leases, lead meetings with the eldercare attorney. I do my research, prepare my questions, and ask for what I need.

I’m not so good when it comes to the emotional tasks or the soft skills. My sisters are much, much better in those areas than I am. So it would have been wishful thinking to ask them to take on some of my tasks and expect they would handle them the way I would. Better for me to ask them to step in where I wasn’t very good. “Hey can you call Mum? She needs someone to talk to.” Or, “Can you keep in touch with the relatives so I can deal with the doctors?”

Indecision: If you are ‘the one’ chances are you are, or will be, your parents’ power of attorney and healthcare proxy. If that is the case, you are in charge. Own it. It’s good practice to ask for input from your siblings, but know when to stop gathering opinions and take action. Your parents gave you the role because they trusted you. You need to trust yourself. If your siblings don’t like it, that is unfortunate. But, you are not caring for them.

One way to avoid indecision while also avoiding alienating family members is to take a high input low democracy approach. Get everyone’s’ feedback. Value it. Weigh it. And then make your best decision. Hopefully, your family will understand if your decision isn’t in line with their input. And if they don’t, just know you listened and acted to the best of your ability.

Indiscretion: As a caregiver, you will most likely spend plenty of time with your aging or ailing parent. And during those interactions you may be tired, stressed, and frustrated with your siblings. Don’t mention it! Find a friend, a spouse, an online support group to vent to. Do not unload on the person who requires care. They have enough to worry about and do not need the guilt, worry and stress that comes from knowing family rifts are forming.

About a week before my mother died, one of the last times she was awake, she took my hand, and said, “Promise me you will be good to your sisters.”

“Damnit, I was trying to avoid this moment,” I joked. “But of course I will Mum.” It was what she needed to hear.

And I meant it.

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23 comments on “The Truth About Siblings and Caregiving”

  1. Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com Reply

    Hi Liz! Just found you on the link for Women of Midlife on FB. The title of your post caught my eye because I think the majority of us in midlife face this issue if we have siblings. I know it came up with both my mom and dad. And while I was not the “primary” caregiver for either of them. (Dad took care of mom and then a friend took care of Dad) I was sort of the “lead” in many of the issues you address. In some ways I had it easier that many others, but there is always that dynamic with siblings. Two of us lived closer and two lived far away. The biggest challenge for me was that my older sister “exected” to be the lead but wasn’t really that good at it (IMHO) and my parents felt because she was older she should be the one in charge. So while I did most of it, I still had to let her feel like she was doing it. Fortunately it did work out because we love one another but it is seldom easy. Thanks for shedding light on this issue! I’m sure it is helping others. ~Kathy

    • admin Reply

      Thanks for your comments Kathy. These issues are universal – but they all play out differently based on the families.

  2. Linda Hobden Reply

    I see this happening all the time with my mother in law being the one to look after her own mother and mother in law; my own mum was the one who did most for her own parents when they were alive; and now with my own mum I feel that both myself & my sister should help together – my sister & I don’t always see eye to eye and our personalities clash so That should be interesting! I’m the eldest but my sister is more bossy! LOL. Thanks for sharing !

    • admin Reply

      I’m the youngest and bossiest Linda! Don’t expect your sister to be anything than what she is. Our styles become more dominant under stress. Work to her strengths.

  3. Tara Reed Reply

    I’m THAT ONE… thankfully the other two step up but I’m the closest, have the most flexible schedule and don’t have small children. I’ve seen things play out so much worse in other families… The best advice you gave was NOT TO COMPLAIN to the person needing care. It’s so important! Thank you for the article – glad I found you from Midlife Bloggers on FB. 🙂

  4. Kristina Reply

    This really brought me to tears. I am the middle child and single mother of 2 girls, one of which was diagnosed with a mental health disorder. My father just spent 3.5 weeks in the hospital and 8 of those days were in the ICU. I was everything for my mother during that time and now they depend on me for a great deal as he is disabled and in the early (rapidly progressing) stages of dementia. I am a FT employee and mompreneur, as well. I have an older married sibling with grown children and a younger adult brother with no spouse or children. The load, however, rests on my shoulders. I sold my home and moved closer to my parents, but the other two are in their own worlds…one choosing to live on the complete opposite coast. Every now and then I find comfort in knowing I am not alone and that all things will work out just as they are meant to.

    Thank you for this post!

  5. Chelsea McGraw Reply

    We shared the last five years of our mum’s care, but my sister was particularly gifted in the emotional and physical parts of her care. My brother and I let her know in many ways how grateful we were, but most importantly we dropped everything, at a moments notice, to support her and jump in to take over on a regular basis. We all did the best we could and got through it with compassion, humor and love.

    • admin Reply

      Humor is an underrated caregiving skill Chelsea. Thanks for your note. We all play a different role – and that’s okay.

  6. PC Lim Reply

    I’m the youngest among 3 siblings. My dad has been diagnose of stage 4 nose cancer. My eldest sister migrated to melbourne with her family and my eldest brother is living at my place after divorce. I have 2 boys the youngest is Autisctic. Im a working mom at the same time i need to care for my dad condition day to day with my mom help as well. Is very draining and exhausting for me. My bro lives with us but he simply dont bother to help us on any domestic housework. Today he was told to sleep at living hall as he snore too loud! It cause my dad unable to sleep well having insomia anf chest pain. He wasnt happy with it and went off. My sis only ask for updates on my dad via mom. Im so stressed up! Despite my dad went for radiotherapy or having any checkup they are no where in sight.

    • admin Reply

      I am sorry you are dealing with so much and with so little help. Focus on what absolutely must get done and the rest can wait. And I hope your siblings step up.

  7. Bonnie Reply

    I did it all for my elderly Dad off and on for years. Full-time in the end. When he passed, my sister questioned every decision I made. Instead of being there for each other, she stuck with her husband’s family and was her typical uppity self.
    She was upset that he left assets in my name, knowing full-well that I would share equally with her. I fully believe that if it were her husband’s family that was in need, she would be there with bells on her toes. More money over there on that side. This is after years of me hosting holiday meals and just basically trying to have a happy family. Inheritance rolled around and I was as fair as possible. There was not a whole lot to get. Sorry, but she can’t fatten it up at my expense. All you caregivers out there, do it because you love your parent. You cannot control others if they have a selfish agenda. I have never felt so alone in my life. While my Dad was alive, I just made peace with the fact that I doing all the work. Now that he’s gone, it seems just as hard because, well, he’s gone. A big loss in my eyes, indeed.

    • Melanie Reply

      I cried when I read your post. I do understand.I wish you comfort for your loss. Yes I love my mom. She has dementia, she does not know me. I go to the nursing home every other week for a few hours, I know its not much at all. My sister does not go ever. she says she can’t its too hard and she would want to bring mom home. She says she feels guilty and that everyone hates her because she’s sick too. Sister ends the conversation saying Thank you so much for going, your going to get a crown in heaven. This is stupid. I want her to check on momma, not guarantee me a crown. I am not sure how I feel towards my mom, I believe I do love her but its mostly sadness that I feel. My own children barely know her and do not feel inclined to go see her. I have (1) niece that goes up there. So I’m not doing everything, but I dread going sometimes.. I just don’t understand my sister and I did get angry and asked her “When can you go up there” she replied “I don’t know” and never went. I just can’t NOT go. I do feel better when I leave the nursing home , glad that I went. Did Mom enjoy our visit? Not sure. Really. My mom does not talk anymore. Only makes sounds. At times she crys, acts like I’m hurting her, even if I’m putting lotion on . I wash her hair every time I go, I pull the chin hairs out (or she’d look like an old man. I bring fresh flowers & throw out the old, clean &straighten the room & bathroom. I feed her if I’ve arrived at meal time and play music on my phone for her. the 60’s music she used to like to dance and sometimes she still bounces in her wheelchair and smiles.Then I bring her a chocolate drink, do her nails. I clean the closet. I bring bag of new socks. I bring clean clothes. Not always new ones because they walk off. I bring all my beauty aids for her in my bag, because blow dryers, shampoo, hair ties and perfume walks off. I read all these stories and feel uplifted. I am going to be thankful that I can manage to get up there and stop being resentful that sister don’t go. Its the most valuable lesson learned lately & I needed it. Thank you all.

  8. Rene Reply

    My younger sister is good at and does a lot with my mom . When I offer to take my mother to app or take something off my sisters plate she says no.

  9. Kathy Reply

    I’m having a hard time because it happened unexpectedly that I became my fathers caregiver. He stayed with me half the year and was a snowbird the other half. But within months, he declined to the point where he can’t live alone. My siblings feel I should take full responsibility because I’m retired. This enrages me to no end. Because I don’t work full time now (I do babysit for extra $), it all falls on me? It’s astounding to me why it takes so much time to take care of his business (paperwork, banking, rides, errands, medical appointments, shopping, etc.) but it’s pretty time consuming. My siblings do help somewhat with rides and two of them are very helpful with many things. But the rest of them enrage me with their lack of concern for either dad or me. There’s no answer. They know how I feel and I ask for help. One did stop for a haircut, another did stop at the drugstore with dad to get the pneumonia vaccine. But I just asked for someone to take him to get his new glasses and got crickets.

    • admin Reply

      Can you try asking a different way? “Let me know who’s taking Dad for his glasses this week. I will be (fill in the blank.)

  10. Sue Farmery Reply

    I had full time live in care of my mother,who had dementiait, it certainly wasn’t how I expected to spend my early retirement. I had one morning and one Afternoon a week when siblings came to visit. Those hours off were cherished, I go out for a coffee, go and check my own flat or sometimes just had an uninterrupted nap. But the times siblings cried off with very little notice had me in tears. Why their doctors appointments had to be on the one morning they should have mum. So what if they were asked to pick up the grand children from school. I had gone through a night of our mother screaming and raving, the only thing getting me through was the thought of three hours to myself the next day. But an 8 am phone call of “I have a bad head today so I can’t come this week” had me i tears. I even screamed at my sister once, I’m bloody exhusted you get here by 9.30 or Mum will be on her own I’m going out, resulted in her irate husband calling me selfish! After two year I put Mum in a nursing home, sold the family home to fund it and picked up my life. Neither sister was happy, by the time mum died all but £25000 had been spent on Mum’s care. One sibling even accused me of losing her inheritance!.

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