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9 Strategies to Stop Fighting With Your Siblings Over Senior Care

Sally Abrahms
By Sally AbrahmsMay 22, 2018

Last Updated: May 22, 2018

Francine Russo had never been close to her sister. Yet when their parents became ill, they needed to become caregivers together. Instead, they burrowed into their old roles in their family. Sound familiar?

Read on for ways to avoid sibling rivalry over senior care.

Fighting With Siblings Over Senior Care

Russo and her sister’s family roles looked like this: the ever helpful, younger sibling who lived two blocks away from Dad and Mom, and Russo, the disappointing, physically and psychologically distant daughter and sister.

She felt guilty for being so removed from her family, but “no one asked me for anything,” recalls Russo, the author of “They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy.”Her sister was angry. “She thought, I shouldn’t have to tell you what to do. You should know,” says Russo. “Here we were in the same situation 40 years later. She wanted me to be there for her but we had never communicated that to begin with. I was still stuck in that old stuff.”

Alexis Abramson, an Atlanta-based gerontologist and author of “The Caregiver’s Survival Handbook,” understands their dynamic.

“When siblings squabble over who will care for Dad or Mom or refuse to help one another with caregiving tasks, the problem often isn’t about caregiving itself, but conflicts and power struggles that may have existed since childhood.”

It can be difficult for families who have never gotten along to make decisions together, especially when there are multiple siblings with varying beliefs, caregiving styles and personalities. According to Forbes Magazine, 61% of sibling caregivers feel they don’t get the support they need from their siblings. Watching our parents decline can make us more emotional, irrational and volatile. There’s something else: it reminds us that we’re next in line.

What Siblings Disagree Over

Why the sibling strife? You name it!

Caregiving Arrangements

Live-in, live out or family help? Should technology be utilized to remind parents to take their medications and alert you if they don’t? Who will dispense medication, interview caregivers or oversee it?

Disparities and Inequities

Is each sibling pulling his or her own weight (money, tasks and/or time)? Is the hometown child, or daughter, saddled with more responsibility and resentful of out-of-town siblings?

Family Possessions

Who gets what when a parent downsizes or moves or after a death?

Finances and Money

How should the money be spent, will there be expenses over caregiving and who handles finances if Dad or Mom is no longer able?

Independence and Safety

Who will think about asking the parent to give up those car keys if it becomes necessary, and who will ensure fall prevention, especially if the parent is living alone?

Living Arrangements

Should Dad stay in the family home or is it too isolating, unrealistic or unsafe? If not, where should he go?

Medical Decisions

Who makes sensitive decisions when there are differences of opinion about the end of life or treatment?

Ways to Take Action to Avoid Conflict

To head off conflict down the road, Abramson and her brother, who are close and want to remain that way, are already talking about their roles, even though their parents are still healthy.

If they need help, Abramson, a gerontologist, will handle the emotional and lifestyle issues, while her brother, a physician, will be in charge of medical decisions. They both will take part in financial decisions.

Use these strategies if you’re trying to stop fighting with siblings over senior care:

  1. Be empathetic. Be understanding of your siblings’ circumstances, of your parents’ and of your own. It’s a stressful time for everyone.
  2. Divvy up responsibilitiesaccording to each person’s strengths. Let them choose what they want to tackle (communicating with the doctors, paying bills online or researching housing options).
  3. Don’t expect a miracle! If your sister was always selfish, she may not change. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to get her to pitch in.
  4. Hold your tongue. How important is it if you and your brother don’t do everything the same way? Unless it’s a safety issue, button up!
  5. Just ask! Have your parents participate in decision-making, or at least weigh in, if it’s realistic.
  6. Keep everyone in the loop. There are now websites that let family members collect all the information in one place (from caregiving and medical to tasks that need to get done) and log on any time. Convene regular family conferences, preferably in person, or otherwise via conference calls or Skype.
  7. Spell out your needs. Maybe a sibling should know what you need, but maybe they have no clue. Perhaps they think you don’t want help.
  8. Time Out! If an issue becomes contentious, take a break, calm yourself, then address the topic at another time. Apologize if it’s warranted.
  9. Vent appropriately. Visit a caregiving forum or website, learn how others have handled tough situations, call a friend, see a therapist or talk to clergy. It’s where professionals help families untangle issues relating to aging parents and help all parties make decisions.

Are you fighting with siblings over how your aging parent should be cared for? What strategies do you use to avoid conflict? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Sally Abrahms
Sally Abrahms
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