For one woman, the primary caregiver to her parents, the sibling criticism came in the form of “poison pen emails.” Her sister would rant about her caregiving. “She is a control freak and needs to have things done a certain way, and if they aren’t, she loses it,” says the Georgia woman. “She actually told me that if I was doing my best, I needed to do better!”
If you’re an only child, you may wistfully believe that having siblings makes caring for aging parents so much easier. Of course it can, but multiple voices can also create friction, and even fallout, over roles, responsibilities and decision-making.
Family members often bump heads over safety, housing (where Mom should live), caregiving (she needs help, she doesn’t need help) and money.
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If you are the primary caregiver, you may feel especially unappreciated, second guessed, hurt or angry if your siblings, friends or parents don’t agree about how you’re handling a situation.
“Any time we are criticized we wonder about our actions, skills or worth,” says Linda Fodrini-Johnson, founder of Walnut Creek, California, Eldercare Services and family therapist who runs classes and support groups for adult children of aging parents.
“That sense of worth is fragile in caregivers because there can be so little appreciation.”
Even when it’s on the mark, criticism is hard to hear. But what if it’s off base, unsolicited or doled out for other reasons: old family dynamics, competitiveness, resentment, guilt or plain insensitivity?
When you’re in the hot seat, ask yourself:
Is it a parent who might be maligning you in order to keep you engaged? They may be feeling a loss of their own independence and control, fear or helplessness.
Is it a spouse who resents the time you are spending on caring for others? Depending on the person doing the criticizing, you may need to attribute their negative feedback to other issues.
Perhaps they think they are more qualified to do the job. What a great opportunity to let them be you for a little while! Invite them to take over for a bit (a good time to introduce them to the concept of respite care), or suggest hiring someone. You’ll get a break and they’ll get a reality check. Once you mention having someone else do the task, they often stop complaining, say experts.
Are you being overly sensitive? Did they chew you out wrongly or in a tactless way or throw in your other weaknesses for good measure? Are they just being a jerk? Or, can you find anything valuable about what they say? Don’t shoot the messenger!
1. Don’t respond immediately. Like any potentially rip-roaring argument, take time to reflect. If you think you’re going to get upset or come up with a pointless zinger, tell them you want to think about what they said and get back to them. The point is not to return fire with a snappy retort but to work together to make a difficult situation easier for all.
2. Engage in the way that will work best. Maybe you can’t take confrontation and a thoughtfully worded email works better for you. Maybe it’s face to face. You know yourself and the criticizer best. Should there be a third party present—a minister, friend, other family member or mediator?
Lisa*, 60, could not be more devoted. She even sleeps in the same room as her mother, who has dementia, so she feels more secure. “Show me respect and appreciation and I’m happy,” says Lisa. “I feel if my brother and sister would have just said, ‘I trust you and be careful with Mom’s money, that would have been great.” Instead, they make her account for every penny she spends on their mother.
3. Speak up. Say what you need and don’t assume the others know or don’t care. It might be respite care, help with the finances, a meal once a week or kind words for all you are doing.
4. Be honest. Are you being overly sensitive, or do you need to let your sibling or parent know you won’t be treated that way?
“‘I don’t like it, this is how I feel, please stop’ can work,” says Barbara Nusbaum, a New York City clinical psychologist. So can, “it feels like criticism when you give advice but no help.” Nusbaum says, “If you’re dealing with someone difficult, you can always say, ‘thank you’ and keep doing what you’re doing!”
5. Remember those “I” statements. Instead of the accusatory “you,” (as in, “you always do this”), try telling them how the criticism makes you feel: “I feel really hurt when you. . .”
6. Focus your response. Keep it about the issue, not the accuser—take the high road. If your brother, let’s say, thinks you’re spending too much of Mom’s money on her care, ask how he might do it and suggest a meeting with a family advisor or another professional. Don’t fixate on his selfishness or lack of cooperation.
7. Brainstorm. If you think the suggestions are from the heart, you can say, “I really appreciate your advice, let’s talk about it.” Ask them how they would have approached the issue. If your sister doesn’t like an adult day program for Dad, for instance, or your choice of assisted living, have them do research and come up with alternatives.
8. Vent away! If you can’t have a rational conversation or find it impossible to agree, talk to friends and/or professionals, write a no-holds-barred email (you don’t have to press “send”), seek out a support group or an online caregiver forum.
9. Give yourself a pat on the back. “Remind yourself that you are doing yeoman’s work, good hard work and have faith in yourself,” says Nusbaum.
Has a sibling, parent or friend found fault with your caregiving? What was it about and how did you handle it? Share your story with us in the comments below.