Adult sibling relationships can bring much joy into our lives; and—for some—they can also bring pain and disappointment. In my experience, caregiving for an aging parent can often highlight our differences and challenge our family relationships in new ways. It’s common for siblings to disagree on matters like how best to support an aging parent, but sometimes brothers and sisters can also differ on how involved they are with the caregiving of their parents.
If you find you’re the person providing the most care to your parent, you may want to engage your siblings and come up with creative ways they can also provide support—but what do you do if you have a sibling who is unwilling to help out with mom or dad?
Meet Lisa and David
I had a client, Lisa, who came to talk with me because she was very upset that her only brother, David, was not helping her with the care of their dad. Her dad’s care needs kept increasing and she was finding it too much to manage alone. When she and I met, she was furious with her brother and told me they had always been close and that she felt abandoned by him now that she needed his help with their dad. I suggested that the three of us meet to discuss the situation.
While we were all together, Lisa shared with her brother the details of their dad’s care needs and made specific requests for David’s help. David explained that although he didn’t want Lisa to be negatively impacted, he was not going to help with their dad’s care. He said that he and his father had always had a difficult relationship and he felt no responsibility to help him now. He did agree to do one or two small things, but that didn’t significantly impact Lisa’s growing caregiving load.
The starting point: Open communication
For a primary caregiver wanting to get their adult siblings to help out more, my advice is to start by making sure your brothers and sisters are fully informed about your parents’ situation and needs, and then to make specific requests for help. Frequently, that is enough for siblings to jump in and do more of the caregiving—but not always, as is the case of Lisa.
Focusing on the practical
Once it’s clear that a sibling is not going to pitch in, I recommend that you as the primary caregiver switch your focus to the practical issue of getting the caregiving help you need, sorting out your feelings about your sibling later on. For example, in Lisa’s case we worked together to make a list of people who might be willing to do one or two things to help her out. One of Lisa’s friends was a great cook, so she decided to ask her if she would make a dinner or two for her father each week. Lisa’s friend not only agreed to bring a dinner over every Tuesday, but asked three of their other friends to choose another night of the week to bring over a meal. That alone made Lisa feel better! Lisa also discovered that her dad was eligible for several hours of help each week from the government and made arrangements that meant she no longer had to help her dad with bathing or cleaning his apartment.
Often, much of our energy is so focused on what our siblings are or aren’t doing that once a discussion occurs—even if our siblings choose not to help—time and energy are freed up to find solutions for care. This isn’t a cop out or “letting siblings off the hook,” it is simply dealing with the reality of the situation even if it’s not what we hoped for. Finding creative solutions may require sitting down with a friend or professional who can offer a new perspective.
Sorting through the emotional
Once Lisa had some caregiving support, she then had to sort through her hurt and anger towards her brother and determine what type of relationship she wanted with him in the future. This wasn’t easy. Lisa told me that she realized she and her brother did not share some core values about family and that made her sad. She decided she still wanted a relationship with David, but she wasn’t sure she would ever feel as close to him again.
Although we can’t predict the outcome, having Essential Conversations with our siblings about our parents’ situation and needs and asking for specific help is the best starting point to engaging our siblings. No matter what the outcome of these conversations, it paves the way for getting the support we need and for authentic and honest relationships with our siblings.
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.