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How to Stop Family Disputes Over Elderly Parents

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsApril 25, 2020

Siblings often disagree when faced with decisions about an elderly parent’s care. Here are some of the most common issues siblings argue about and advice to resolve them. 

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 they need extra help. This is especially common if family members are spread out geographically or spend different amounts of time with aging loved ones.

Solution: Get an expert assessment

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

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

Solution: Research senior care options

Once care needs are established, the next step is deciding who will provide care. If you think a senior living community may be a good solution, our Senior Living Advisors have experience matching seniors’ needs and lifestyle preferences with communities across the U.S.

If your loved one will remain at home, sibling help 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, alone, and resentful.

Solution: Talk about your needs and ways others can help.

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

If siblings live far away, or have never had a close relationship with your parent, they may not be able to provide in-person support. Suggest how they can help from afar with things like finances, appointment scheduling, meals, or emotional support.

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: Communicate with siblings, parent, and, if necessary, authorities

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

If your sibling is acting as a gatekeeper and prevents you from reaching your parents, and you have 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.

Siblings won’t help with elderly parents

Sometimes, siblings may not understand or choose to ignore how much help the parent needs. Other times, 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, try to schedule visits or video calls, or request doctor testimony 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 are 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 often revert to dysfunctional and unhealthy roles from the past. Think of all the times Mom or Dad broke up your fights as kids, and remember that this is about what’s best for them, not your longstanding arguments.

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 doctor or geriatric care manager can also mediate.

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. 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 their concerns. Emphasize your role as an advocate who wants to maintain the quality of life they enjoy, and show how senior living or in-home care 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 you see communities together, whether through in-person visits or a virtual tour. After understanding the amenities and lifestyle senior living has to offer, they 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 loved ones experience significant personality changes due to dementia or physical decline. You may find that the parent you’ve been close with your entire life is physically threatening or verbally abusing you, and your siblings won’t 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 daycare, occasional respite stays, or weekly home care.

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 get siblings or your local police department’s elder affairs officer involved.

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 those 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.

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, personal caregiving can be economically draining.

For sandwich generation caregivers with full-time jobs, the emotional and financial toll is 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 Aid (VA) benefits, in some states you may be able to secure a caregiving stipend.

In this Ask an Advisor Series: How to Finance video, A Place for Mom’s advisors share tips they’ve learned from working with thousands of families to secure affordable senior living.

Contact our free, local Senior Living Advisors to see how they can help with your family’s specific needs.

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 is best for their aging parent, but they disagree about what that means.

Solution: Let your parents make the decisions

End-of-life conflicts can be avoided when seniors, well before a medical crisis, write a living will — also called a healthcare directive — that specifies end-of-life wishes. Ask that they pre-designate a power of attorney, or durable power of attorney, to carry out these requests.

If you’re worried that power of attorney could be contested in your family, have all documents signed by a lawyer or notarized at your local post office 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 (the aging parent). This 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.

Solution: Know about inheritance and estates in advance

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.

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.

9 essential tips to stop fighting with siblings about senior parents

Fran Russo, author of “They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy,” offers these tips to help you take action and avoid conflict:

  1. Be empathetic
    Be understanding of everyone’s circumstances: your siblings’, your parents’, and your own. It’s a stressful time for everybody.
  2. Divvy up responsibilities according 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 has always been 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 information to tasks that need to get done) and log on any time. You should convene for regular family conferences, preferably in person, or otherwise via conference calls or Skype or FaceTime.
  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. Timeout
    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. Professionals can help families untangle issues relating to aging parents and help all parties make decisions.

Claire Samuels
Author
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She worked with senior living communities throughout the Midwest before pivoting to writing. She’s passionate about sharing ways of living well at any age.

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