For siblings with aging parents, it’s time to talk

What makes talking with our siblings about needs of an aging parent difficult?

First of all, gathering back at the family home or just talking about an aging parent’s needs and care options can ignite old sibling battles and rivalries. Oftentimes, siblings revert to their childhood roles. You will recall people using labels such as big sister, little brother, black sheep, Mom’s favorite. It is easy to fall back into the old roles and get caught up in trying to resolve old differences.

Also, gender plays a role in the way we approach helping an aging parent. Sarah Matthews, a professor of sociology at Cleveland State University, conducted research with 149 pairs of siblings with aging parents. She found:

• Women and men have different expectations

• Sisters saw siblings as a team, expecting cooperation. They wanted to know what each sibling was doing for the parent and thought they knew more about how best to help.

• Brothers acted independently and tended to annoy the sisters. Oftentimes they did a lot more than their sisters knew about. They just didn’t share it.

Matthews advises siblings to stay focused on what their parents would want, and to remember that their relationships with siblings will endure long after their parents’ deaths.

I have seen many families struggle with this part of life. Caring for aging parents can cause stress for siblings, but it doesn’t have to. The most important thing siblings can do is talk, but starting those conversations can be tough.

Here are some things to consider when it’s time to have those conversations.

• Recognize that opinions may be very strong and divided (given family dynamics and the fact that you’re talking about the often distressing needs of an aging parent). Keep in mind that your purpose is to help your aging parent.

• Schedule and plan a family meeting. Get all your siblings and your parent together (either in person or by conference call). Consider bringing in a trusted family friend or professional mediator to facilitate.

• Walk away from the family meeting as a unified force. In doing so, you will have laid a solid foundation for future family decisions. There will likely be many more major and minor transitions for you and your parent to face in the coming years.

It’s important that all siblings reach a consensus. Research shows that the more the siblings are involved, the better off the parent will be physically and emotionally. Plus, sibling closeness provides unified support and probably the best overall decision-making for your parent. Two (or more) minds are better than one at brainstorming and considering options.

Also, put yourself in your parent’s shoes. During this time of their lives, the last thing aging parents need or want to see is their children quarreling.

It’s common for one adult child to serve as the primary caregiver. But siblings not in that role should watch for fatigue and caregiver burnout.

The primary caregiver needs regular days off. Other siblings can also help out at the caregivers home with things such as yard work and housekeeping.

Realize that each sibling has individual strengths and work with them. While one person might be the hands-on caregiver, another sibling might be better at personal business such as bill-paying and banking.

But most important, ask your parent. If he or she is of sound mind, it’s important to respect his or her preference for who does what.

Here’s a website that can help: It has lots of practical advice for baby boomer children who have aging parents in their lives.

Karen Perry is the executive director of The Lodge Assisted Living Facility in Carson City.


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