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How to Stop Family Disputes Over Elderly Parents

16 minute readLast updated July 2, 2023
Written by Claire Samuels
Reviewed by Carol Bradley Bursack, NCCDP-certified dementia support group facilitatorAuthor Carol Bradley Bursack spent two decades as a primary caregiver to seven elders and is also a newspaper columnist, blogger, and expert on aging.
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Siblings often have differences of opinion about their elderly parent’s care. Whether it’s disagreements about finances, how much effort each sibling is contributing, or where your parent might live, each sibling might feel they know what’s best. But not everyone can be right. Seeing a parent’s health decline can be painful, but it doesn’t have to cause conflict within families. Below are some of the most common issues that can arise among family members, plus advice on potential solutions.

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Siblings disagree about how much care is needed

Adult siblings don’t always see caregiving needs the same way. One child may have the impression that a parent is doing fine at home, while another feels that the parent needs extra help. This is especially common if family members are spread out geographically or spend different amounts of time with the aging loved one.

Solution: Get an expert assessment

An outside opinion can often help resolve issues. Arrange for a geriatric care manager or therapist to visit your loved one’s home for a safety assessment. Also, consult your parent’s primary doctor about recent deterioration or any developing physical challenges.

Clarification from health care professionals can define the next steps and prevent sibling arguments about how much care is necessary.

Solution: Research senior care options

Once you establish care needs, the next step is deciding who will provide the care. If a family decides a senior living community may be a good solution, A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors have experience matching seniors’ needs and lifestyle preferences with communities across the U.S. In some cases, a parent may refuse to move to assisted living. It’s important to respect your parent’s autonomy and wishes whenever possible.

If your loved one will remain at home, help from you and your siblings can range from financial assistance to daily visits. If you or another sibling are considering full-time caregiving, read these top 10 duties of a senior caregiver to better understand what the role requires.

One child does all the heavy lifting

Often the child who lives closest to their aging parent, or has the closest emotional relationship, will assume the main caregiver role. When other family members don’t readily offer to help, the primary caregiver can feel isolated and alone, leading to caregiver sibling resentment.

Solution: Communicate your needs and ways others can help

From a distance, it may not be clear to family members just how difficult caregiving has become. Sometimes, the role of primary caregiver is unavoidable for one person due to family dynamics.

If siblings live far away or have never had a close relationship with the parent, they may not be able to provide in-person support. But family members can still help from afar with things like finances, meals, appointment scheduling, or emotional support. Financial support can also help pay for part-time home care, which can give respite to an overworked family caregiver.

If you’re experiencing caregiver sibling resentment, it’s best communicate openly and honestly about the issues you’re facing and work through potential resolutions together, considering the options above.

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Siblings are excluded from decision making

Sometimes one child takes over the caregiving role and leaves other family members in the dark, perhaps even limiting access to the elderly loved one.

Solution: Urge communication with siblings, parents, and, if necessary, authorities

If possible, call or write to your sibling, explaining your feelings and desire to be more involved in the parent’s care. If your relationship with the caregiving sibling is strained, strive to maintain ongoing communication with your parent through phone calls, email, or letters.

Your sibling may have your relative’s best interests at heart, but in some instances — especially if you feel as if your loved one’s perceptions of you have changed drastically, or if you’ve been cut out of a will or legal document — your sibling may be manipulating an elderly parent for their own gain. If your sibling is acting as a gatekeeper and prevents you from reaching your parents, and you have serious reason to believe there may be abuse or exploitation involved, call local Adult Protective Services to intervene.

Even if your sibling is angry, remember that you’re putting the health and safety of your parents first, and doing so may make intervention necessary.

Siblings won’t help with aging parents

Sometimes, siblings may not understand or choose to ignore how much help the parent needs. Other times, adult children refuse to care for an elderly parent due to negative past relationships or current inability.

Solution: Try to understand everyone’s point of view

If you believe your siblings just aren’t aware of your efforts, schedule visits or video calls, or request doctor testimony or the assistance of a geriatric care manager to explain the severity of the situation.

If your siblings refuse to help due to past trauma or current circumstances, that’s their right. See if they’re willing to help financially or provide you with emotional support, even if they won’t interact with aging parents.

Family members fall back into childhood patterns

When immediate family members come together to care for aging parents, they may revert to dysfunctional and unhealthy roles from the past. Think of all the times Mom or Dad broke up your fights as kids. It’s important for everyone to simply remember that this is about what’s best for the parent, not your long-standing sibling rivalries.

Solution: Consider a mediator

Sometimes a neutral third party is the only way to calm feuding family members. Representatives from the National Family Caregiver Support Program or your local chapter of the Area Agency on Aging could act as mediators. A counselor, doctor, or geriatric care manager can also mediate. Costs for mediation services will vary depending on where you seek services. Be sure to check with insurance providers for more information about costs and fees.

At a family meeting, there should be a 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. Discuss finances, caregiving, and any wishes your parents already have in place.

Aging parents resist care

Sometimes, adult children realize that their loved one needs care, but the parent refuses to see it as an option. This can lead to a divide between siblings who want to follow their parent’s wishes and those who know it isn’t feasible.

Solution: Explain the benefits of senior care

Listen to concerns. Emphasize your role as an advocate for your parent’s quality of life, and show how senior living or in-home care can help a parent maintain the lifestyle they already enjoy. This may be a difficult conversation to broach — framing the discussion based on your parent’s needs can help.

Sometimes older parents have an outdated view of senior living. Explain that today’s assisted living communities are very different from the nursing homes where they may remember their own parents or grandparents living.

Suggest that you all explore communities together, whether through in-person visits or a virtual tour. After understanding the amenities and lifestyle senior living has to offer, parents may be more likely to make the transition.

You’re faced with toxic or manipulative elderly parents

It’s a harsh reality that, as they age, many people experience significant personality changes due to physical decline or dementia. It can be challenging to know what to do following a parent’s dementia diagnosis. You may find that the parent you’ve been close with your entire life is now acting against you, and your siblings may not believe it’s happening.

Take a step back and remember that this isn’t your fault.

Solution: Find a balance between caring for your parent and maintaining your own well-being

Caregiver burnout is especially common in this situation, which can cause your own health and relationships to suffer. If you’re a full-time caregiver who’s decided to keep a loved one at home, consider adult day care, occasional respite stays, or weekly in-home care. The National Family Caregiver Support Program can also offer guidance and resources to people experiencing caregiver burnout.

Your aging parent may threaten or attempt to manipulate you when the topic of outside senior care is broached. Recognize that this is another sign they need professional help, and, if necessary, get siblings or your local police department’s elder affairs officer involved. The safety of you and your loved one should always be the priority.

Siblings argue about paying for an aging parent’s care

Finances play an enormous role in how siblings choose to care for their aging parents. The cost of senior living often seems overwhelming and can deter families from exploring all of their options.

If your aging loved one does require in-home care, hospice, or senior living, who will pay for it? Should residual expenses be split evenly between siblings, or should the siblings with higher incomes pay more?

Solution: Establish family financial roles in advance

Try to make these financial decisions and establish a budget in advance. Ask your parents how much money they’ve saved and if they’ve taken out a long-term care insurance policy or qualify for other assistance.

If you and your family decide that aging at home is the best option for your loved one, recognize the financial repercussions. From food and medicine to potential home health services, providing in-home care for a loved one can be economically draining.

For sandwich-generation caregivers — these are adult children “sandwiched” between taking care of their elderly parents and their own children while maintaining their personal daily responsibilities — the emotional and financial toll of taking on the care of their elderly loved one can be severe.

If you don’t have money available for outside care or to support a parent in-home, see if a family member can get paid to be a caregiver. If your loved one qualifies for Medicaid or Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits, some states allow for a caregiving stipend.

End-of-life care and inheritance conflicts emerge

End-of-life care is controversial. One child may want to arrange hospice care for a terminally ill parent, while another may advocate that every day lived is a victory. In both cases, family members want what’s best for their aging parents, but they disagree about what that means.

Solution: Let your parents make the decisions

End-of-life conflicts can be avoided when seniors write a living will long before a medical care crisis. Also called a health care directive, a living will specifies end-of-life wishes. Ask the parent to pre-designate a power of attorney — or a durable power of attorney — to carry out these requests.

No matter your family’s situation, have all documents reviewed by a lawyer or notarized at your local post office, library, or bank.

Solution: Understand power of attorney types and know your responsibilities

Power of attorney is one of the most frequent conflicts between siblings with aging parents. This is partially due to misunderstandings about the position.

  • General power of attorney. This assigned individual can perform almost any act in place of the principal (aging parent). That includes opening financial accounts, making medical decisions, and managing personal finances. General power of attorney is terminated when the principal becomes incapacitated, passes away, or revokes it.
  • Durable power of attorney for health care. This person has the authority to make medical decisions during an emergency, regardless of the principal’s mental competence or capacity. It’s their job to make sure that health care providers carry out all wishes made in a health care directive.
  • Durable power of attorney for financial care. This individual maintains control of finances, even if the principal is deemed mentally incompetent or incapacitated. This is necessary to open accounts and manage personal finances for loved ones with advanced dementia.

It’s important to note that your parent can usually transfer the power of attorney to a new agent if the current agent decides they are no longer willing to be the agent. Sadly, inheritance issues with siblings are common, and they often stem from a lack of communication. Explain to your aging parent the importance of estate planning.

Solution: Know about inheritance and estates in advance

While it’s not appropriate to worry your loved one unnecessarily about heirlooms, it can actually be helpful to discuss things in advance so that siblings don’t feel shortchanged. If there’s something that matters to you, let your parent know.

Disputes about inheritances can be ideal cases for family mediators. A family mediator’s job is to analyze these situations fairly and objectively and to help siblings find areas of common ground.

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General tips to help navigate what's best for your parent

Keep these tips in mind during family discussions about next steps for aging parents.

Understand the wants, needs, and concerns of parents

In situations that allow it, have an honest conversation about assisted living with your parents. Give your parents the opportunity to communicate what they would feel comfortable with in current or potential situations. Also, allow your parents to express any current or potential concerns. This communication gives siblings a clear understanding of their parents’ wants, needs, and concerns, enabling siblings to cater to their parents and avoid disagreements since the parent has already provided guidelines on what to do.

Listen to everyone and be empathetic

Each sibling will most likely feel different about your parent’s declining health, how to approach care, and what everyone’s role should be. By letting everyone discuss their concerns, wants, and potential roles, each sibling can feel heard when disputes arise and decisions are made.

While listening to siblings’ concerns, remember to be empathetic regarding their financial and emotional positions as well. Another sibling’s concerns may seem trivial to you, but it’s important to at least hear them out and take all their concerns seriously.

Pro Tip: Know when to walk away and seek help.

When discussions about decisions for parents turn into disputes, things can quickly become tumultuous. Avoid this by knowing when to pause a conversation and come back at a time when emotions aren’t running as high. If you’re not able to have a calm conversation, consider bringing in a mediator to help resolve disagreements.

Keep communication going

Staying in contact frequently keeps all siblings in the loop, allowing everyone to feel like they know what’s going on. Whether it’s getting together in person or over a video chat, keep open communication lines so everyone can discuss any concerns as they arise. Open communication can even help siblings bond while taking care of their parents.

Move forward with better communication

Watching a parent’s health decline can be painful, and more than likely, it will cause disagreements between siblings — but that doesn’t have to tear your family apart. Keep these solutions and tips in mind to help you and your siblings have better communication, avoid arguments, and even strengthen your relationships.

When that simply isn’t possible, consider reaching out to a Senior Living Advisor at A Place for Mom. Our advisors are well-versed in all care types and can provide input that may defuse family arguments and redirect conversations toward providing your loved one with the best care.


Meet the Author
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a former senior copywriter at A Place for Mom, where she helped guide families through the dementia and memory care journey. Before transitioning to writing, she gained industry insight as an account executive for senior living communities across the Midwest. She holds a degree from Davidson College.

Edited by

Jordan Kimbrell

Reviewed by

Carol Bradley Bursack, NCCDP-certified dementia support group facilitator

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