As aging parents lose their independence and begin to rely on family for more support, the amount of conflict between adult children can increase. Dealing with a parent’s care can rekindle sibling rivalries that have lain dormant for years—even decades. This discord can tear families apart, and spoil some of the last opportunities children have to build meaningful, positive memories with their parents.
The Causes of Conflict Between Siblings
Family dynamics are infinitely complex, but two underlying themes run through most sibling disputes about their parent’s care– injustice and inheritance.
When one sibling shoulders a disproportionate burden of Mom or Dad’s care, that sense of unfairness can foster resentment. Often, by virtue of distance, the siblings who live further away are “off the hook” when it comes to caring for an aging parent, while the nearest siblings are obliged to take on a caregiving role. When the caregiving sibling asks for help from other siblings, the other siblings often don’t fully appreciate, or choose to ignore, how much help their parent needs, and how much work one sibling is doing.
Playing on an ancient idiom, Mark Twain once said, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” If that’s the case, our deflated economy may contribute to more sibling clashes over a parent’s finances: The average American household’s net worth has declined 40% since 2007. This means that less fortunate siblings must divide an even smaller inheritance, naturally increasing the likelihood of conflict. It’s easy to condemn the sibling who seems preoccupied with money, but this sibling may only be hoping to remedy a difficult, or even desperate, financial situation, or to feed a family or catch up on a mortgage. In a perfect world, each of us is selfless and not motivated by money, but we live in a far from perfect world where money is indispensable.
A Perfect Storm
Money and caregiving are stressful flashpoints on their own, but when both areas of contention are in the mix, they can create a perfect storm of animosity between siblings. When family dynamics are already tense because one sibling feels unjustly overburdened with a parent’s care, the “x-factor” of money can compound the conflict and create an all-out schism. For example, a sibling who provides most of a parent’s care may feel entitled to a greater share of an inheritance. In other cases, siblings who are more distant or uninvolved may believe that the caregiving sibling is spending too much money on a parent’s care. Sometimes, the children of aging parents will even resist plans for professional care in order to “protect” an inheritance.
Tips for Improving Communication with Your Siblings
There are no easy answers to settle disputes between siblings who are butting heads over a parent’s care, but maintaining (or rebuilding) communication is crucial.
The Family Meeting
Ideally, siblings can identify and correct issues before they become irreconcilable. The key is good communication, and a tried and true strategy to facilitate the exchange of ideas is the family meeting. At a family meeting, there should be frank and open discussion about a parent’s care needs. Each sibling’s role and obligations should be established, and future plans should be made. But if the question of where to hold a family meeting leads to a bitter argument in and of itself, the friction may have gotten past the point when a family meeting can help.
An Outside Voice: Advisors, Counsels and Mediators
Sometimes a neutral third-party can calm feuding siblings. A Place for Mom Senior Living Advisors, who work directly with families as they plan a parent’s care, have defused many disputes between siblings over lengthy conference calls. Family counselors can also help to bridge the differences between siblings, assuming they still talk to one another. If things have become really heated, a family mediator specializing in senior care issues may be able to break through the ill will and help build consensus and find middle-ground.
The High Road
Ultimately, the only person we can change is ourselves. No matter how much we try to reason with a disagreeable sibling, we may not succeed. While advocating for what’s best for our parent, it’s wise to “let go” of anger or resentment towards a sibling who has been unhelpful or hurtful, and to strive for the undeniable peace that comes from acceptance and forgiveness; neither stifling our impulse to call out an uncooperative brother or sister, nor allowing ourselves to be consumed with anger.