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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35 comments on “The Truth About Siblings and Caregiving”

  1. Kathy @ SMART Living 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.)

    • Lk Reply

      I have the same issues. I am retired my Mom is still in her house but do all of the apts, shopping, paperwork, cleaning, etc. When I ask for help from my sisters they say they work and have no time. Mom doesn’t drive anymore and uses a walker. If I ask for help get told off from them. I get no respect and do this for nothing nor do I except pmt. How do I get some help from them? I am stressed out.

  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!.

  11. overwhlemed Reply

    Unfortunately, two of the four siblings in my family are incompetent and cause trouble rather than help.

    My one sister is psychotic, and adds to the burden. My one (well) sister and I had to take care of her while my father had cancer after a severe psychotic event that involved the police, $20,000 in damage in a day, and a hospitalization. My father died while she was in her 11th month in a psych rehab facility that took me 3 months to find.

    My brother lives in a cabin in the mountains and hasn’t worked in the ten years since he’s been released from a prison 12 ,00 miles away. He has temper explosions, and is angry all the time. He also does nothing to help (at least he hasn’t been arrested – trying to deal with embassies and a foreign prison is unbelievably difficult).

    This leaves my well sister and I to take care of my mother, who lives 2 hours away, has Alzheimers, lives alone, and resists help. I’m still trying to finalize my father’s estate,. which even included finding a bag of gold coins a few weeks ago that I sold for $9,000.

    All of this has made it hard for me to work for the past 2.5 years. Both my sister and I are burned out., having taken care of a sick sister, sick father and now ailing mother in that time.

    Those of you siblings who are competent and not helping, please jump in – your other siblings are suffering. Please forget your excuses …

  12. overwhlemed Reply

    PS: yes, both my sister and I have neglected kids because of all the family caregiving. I’m a single father and my kids’ mother abandoned them after our youngest daughter died.

  13. Jody L. Both Reply

    JodyB868801 13 minutes ago
    I have been caring for my disabled 83 year old mother for 3 years now, but I have lived in the house with her for 48 years, we were raised and I raised my children while living in the apartment that was built when my grandmother asked our family to move in after my grandfather died. When my grandmother died in a home, my mother turned to me and asked me to promise her that I wouldn’t let anyone put her in a home. She wanted to stay at home, that was in 1995. I told her I would, so in 1998, she wrote up a paper with her husband as a premarital agreement. The paper was signed and witnessed by a lawyer. The agreement stated that whichever of her children stayed in the house and cared for either her or her husband would be entitled to half the inheritance of the house, I don’t care about that, however, I just lost my mother 7 days ago. What I am being faced with is the sister and brother who let us down in my moms time of need, and never really had the time to come and see her, let alone help me to care for her, no matter how much we begged them to. They have been waiting to rid themselves of me, not even giving me a chance to adjust to my mother’s death, my brother pulled me aside and told me that now since they got my mother taken care of, I needed to get out of the house cause they are selling it. Can I clean and gather my mother’s things up? I couldn’t believe he was talking about the house, which is paid for, no mortgage, and I just let him talk. I chalked it up to shock. The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed, I just cried and cried, but my sister and brother banged on the door, they had to get clothes to bury my mother in.. I could barely function, and they are out like it’s a grand event they are getting ready for. At the dinner after the funeral, as I was leaving with my son, who also lives in the house, my moms friend stops me to tell me to get the house cleaned and ready, she is coming on Saturday with a For Sale sign to put out. I almost lost it, what is going on. Who doesn’t allow for time to grieve the loss of their mother, especially when it’s thier mother too, and jumps to selling a home out from under her sister, without any idea of where me and my son will live. It’s a good time to be homeless is what was said, as it’s getting warmer out. What recourse do I have, and I don’t know if that premarital agreement will do me any good, my sisters and brother may not remember that it even exists. My mother made me lock it up after it was all signed.

    • admin Reply

      Jody, I am so sorry for your loss and for what you are going through now. I am not an attorney and cannot offer legal advice but I would recommend you consult one. Perhaps try the lawyer who drafted the premarital agreement. HOping things work out and you can take the time you need to grieve and care for yourself and your son.

      • advice Reply

        One of the best pieces of advice from friends, was to consult a lawyer. For between 0 and $250 they can tell you your rights. Make several notarized copies of that paper and take the original and a copy to a lawyer. Let them tell you your rights. My guess is that you do not have to go along with the siblings. It is contested. Do not move out!!!!!!! You have rights. You lessen them if you move out. When the realtor comes do not let them in. When the realtor leave take the for sale sign down. The realtor is just a person for hire. The lawyer visit will tell you all about your rights and you will then feel more in control of your situation. They cannot just ride rough shod over you and your feelings.

  14. Veronica Reply

    I feel ya….I’m sorry I had to laugh at the cricket comment, I get that from one of my siblings every time I’ve asked for help. Her excuse. “I have plans”. Too bad she can’t include our mother in her plans.

    • admin Reply

      Sooo frustrating. But you have to laugh otherwise you’d cry, or sceam, all the time.

  15. Feeling guilty Reply


    My mother always prayed daily, her prayers have been answered in having a sweet personality. Recently she broke her leg and as a very old person it has not healed; she is facing another surgery.

    I am feeling a bit guilty because I cannot work and also take care of her full time. Turned over her care to another sibling in another state, who is overjoyed to have her. There are many siblings who want to spend one on one time with her. This sibling thought he would never get the time with her. Flew her out this morning. I have taken care of her for a decade. She was happy and able to drive and see her friends until this incident. Her friends are angry with me.

    When ever I called my other siblings for help they drove from different states to help me with mother through this or that surgery. They held her hand and did the lions share of her care. At the present time, some of them are mad that the sibling who lives farthest away is now getting a chance to have her stay with them for a few years. She will be facing another extensive surgery and he is happy to see her through it. They are mad because she is now several states away and they cannot visit her as easily. My mother is happy and sad. Sad to leave her home and friends, happy to reconnect with her son, who had the least amount of one on one time with her growing up. I try to placate the sisters that did not get picked, they are hurt. So, this is a story of siblings fighting to have a mother that is wheelchair bound on a walker facing another surgery. I Just wanted the world to know that prayer goes a long way to making a tough situation better. My mother’s prayer’s have been answered. We all love her and fight over her. After ten years of taking care of her, I do feel guilty sending her to another sibling when the care has gotten really tough. On the other hand with many sibling who are fighting for her presence, why can’t I fell good about sending her to one who stays home and has the time, desire, need, and money. Anyway, I thought writing about this would make me feel better and display a different scenario. One where mothers siblings, and her children all want her to come live with them. She is a wonderful loving kind person and has little money, but the love…..

    • admin Reply

      I am sorry you are dealing with this. You should never feel guilty for earning a living. We are all doing the best we can.

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