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Sibling issues

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

In nearly every family, there's one sibling who, as the parents age, does the majority of elder care. What determines which sibling this is and why don't the others make more of an effort to help?

Sibling Issues: Why Don't They Help?

In my family, I was the default caregiver.

Not only was I the one who lived in the same town as my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my in-laws, I was most suited emotionally to caregiving. It's always been in my nature.

I was, however, fortunate to have a sister who lived 50 miles away. She did her best with our parents, driving in from the lake country of Minnesota nearly every weekend so she could visit them. We have a brother who lives in Kansas, but the journey home was a long one, so he wasn't as involved. We all get along well, so I really had no complaints about sibling help, even though their daily care was my responsibility.

Sibling Responsibilities

It's not as clear cut in many families. The person who lives closest to the parents may not be close to them emotionally. This person may not be well suited to caregiving for any number of reasons, however proximity makes this person the default caregiver.

After a certain amount of time, often involving many trips with the elders to doctors and emergency rooms with many vacation days lost to caregiving duties, this caregiver starts to wonder. Why doesn't my sister do more? She lives farther away, but she could take some vacation and come and stay for awhile. Why doesn't my brother offer to help? He could do something, couldn't he?

The default caregiver can soon find reasons for resentment. He or she approaches the siblings with poorly suppressed anger. Alternately, when the siblings offer to do something small for the elder, the primary caregiver gets sarcastic. "Oh, are you sure it's not too much trouble?" he says.

Caregiving Responsibilities: Sibling Issues

Often, it's the sibling pecking order of old in its "adult" form. The default caregiver feels put upon, but also enjoys wearing the martyr hat. The sister who could come for a time gets the feeling that she's not really wanted, so she takes back her offer and doesn't come. She just phones in her love. The brother, who could have perhaps handled the paper work from afar, finds the caregiver protective of important information, or at least that is how he reads the issue. So he refuses to do anything at all.

Is this always the case? No. The flip side is often true. The "away" siblings have no clue how much time caregiving takes, so they just assume all is well and that it's not that big a deal. If the default caregiver asks for help, they consider it whining.

"He's over reacting. How tough can a few doctor visits be?"

"She's in town, anyway. Why can't she stop by and help without making a Federal case of it?"

Making Caregiving Work

Be prepared if you are the primary caregiver. Look at your own attitude first. Are you shutting out the siblings so that you can prove to Mom and Dad that you are their angel? If so, it's time to grow up and communicate with your siblings. Let them know they are welcome to help and specifically tell them what you need. Give them a chance to help and they may.

However, if you have tried to get them to help with your parents' care and they just don't want to be bothered, you can still spell out your needs, so they are aware. But you may need to take other action as well, such as hiring outside help.

As with so many caregiving issues, this issue is about family dynamics. Taking care of aging parents can showcase sibling issues as few other things can.