When Siblings Need to Talk About an Aging Parent

Taking care of elderly parents can create a unique dynamic among siblings. The people who spent two decades of their own lives making your needs central to their lives, are now themselves in great need. That fact alone can be a hard reality to embrace. Different siblings may have different emotional reactions to this new phase of life. As well, there are going to be many practical issues that siblings need to discuss concerning their parents so that the best decisions are made for everyone involved. But you can’t overlook the reality that all of these decisions are being made in the context of strong emotions and past family norms.

Depending upon how well the family gets along, caregiving for aging parents may be very easy or very difficult. Family members will have to work cooperatively to decide who will be the primary caregiver for mom or dad. The sibling living closest may not be the one best suited financially or emotionally for the job. For instance, your sister who lives in town may have recently divorced and is now a single mother with 3 kids and a full-time job. Or it may be that the brother who lives around the corner from mom and dad is also the brother who is most overwhelmed by the day-to-day responsibilities of visiting your parents, managing medications, going to doctor appointments or getting phone calls from a frightened parent in the middle of the night.

As a result, you and your siblings might find that the lines of responsibility are not so simple to define. Responsibilities might be divided up in creative ways. For instance, the brother who is now the primary caregiver may not be the one to handle the finances. One of your sisters may be the information gatherer while your sister with the medical background may be the one who keeps in touch with your parents’ physicians.

One of the best ways to deal with the issues of caring for your elderly parents is to call a family meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to decide what needs to be done to help your parents. It is best done in person but can also take place via a conference call if siblings are scattered around the country.

A family meeting should take these four things into consideration:

  • Write it down! A written agenda will be helpful. It should include all the things everyone is doing now and list what else needs to be done. Written records will also be helpful going forward.
  • Honesty is the best policy. Each sibling should be specific about what they can do and can’t do, as well as about how they’re emotionally coping with this new phase.
  • Be prepared to divide and conquer. You’ll each need to take on tasks but don’t expect perfect equality. Depending a number of factors, one of you might have more responsibilities than another.
  • Develop a plan for ongoing communication. It will be important to continue to all stay on the same page as things change.

Regular family meetings won’t resolve all tensions but they’ll go a long way toward maintaining healthy family relationships during a time that is difficult, complex and emotional. At every step in the process, it will be important to understand your own emotions at this challenging time and to try to have sympathy for your siblings’ feelings as well, even if you disagree. When your parents’ journey ends, your family relationships will continue. It’s vital to maintain those bonds during this challenging time.