For years, whenever I thought about the best way for siblings to handle the issues of older parents, I thought about my friend Toddi. She had two sisters with whom to share the load – one a doctor, one a lawyer, and she worked in finance. If there could be a more perfect distribution of skills (and therefore labor) I had never seen one. Whenever we discussed it, she acknowledged that it really could not have worked out better.
Unfortunately, that seems to be the exception rather than the norm. In many families one child shoulders most if not all of the responsibility. Often it’s the child who lives closest. And it tends to be daughters (sometimes daughters-in-law) more than sons. The resulting resentment can be damaging to relationships between siblings – relationships that are supposed to help sustain you when your parents are no longer around. So, what to do?
- Plan before you act. When it starts to become clear that your parent is going to need additional care, before you step up and take control (or offer to dive in) sit down with your siblings and make a list of the different things that need to be done. Think about how much time and how much money and what sort of skills it will take to deal with each item on the list. Then talk about how much time, how much money and what sort of skills each sibling has to contribute.
- Schedule a call/meeting. Making the list and ironing out the various line items is a tough thing to do in a flurry of back-and-forth emails. You’re best off if you can all be together in the same room to sort it out. But if that’s not possible, a conference call will do. Schedule once-a-month calls thereafter to talk about how it’s going and keep each other in the loop.
- Acknowledge what’s being done already. This is particularly important if you’re not the sibling taking on the brunt of the work. If you want to preserve your relationships with your siblings, it’s key to let them know you a) understand and b) appreciate what they’re doing. At the same time, you may be feeling that you’d like more information about what’s happening and how you can be a bigger part of the process. It’s okay to air that as well. And if you’re the one looking for such acknowledgment? Without getting too emotional, explain the facts of the job you’re doing and the changes you’ve had to make to your life as a result. Compassionate siblings will step up. Give them enough credit to believe that to this point they may not understand what’s been happening.
- Ask for what you need. If you want help – additional hands on deck, financial contributions, someone to come into town so that you can take a break, whatever – ask for it. But know going in what you want coming out and be very specific about what you’re asking for. Your siblings may have their own ideas about how they can best participate. Listen. Don’t react immediately. If you need time to think about how that will work, say you need time to process. And understand, just like your parent’s need for care changes from week to week and month to month, your relationships with your siblings can morph to meet it.
- Get help. Finally, if it’s clear that you’re not going to be able to work this out on your own, bring in help. A geriatric care manager, elder care mediator, or a good therapist can provide a sounding board to help you get to a scenario that’s livable for all.