There are many heartbreaking moments to navigate when our parents start to depend on us for care. But few are as painful as fighting with our siblings.
This doesn’t always happen. Sibling relationships can be a source of strength and comfort as parents grow older. But, more often than not, friends tell me about severe conflicts they have with their brothers and sisters, and the suffering it causes.
Like so much to do with caregiving, these clashes often come as a surprise. No one imagines that by caring for their aging parents, they’ll be thrust into such emotionally charged interactions with their siblings. It’s such a shock to go from seeing family once a year over the holidays to navigating our parents needs together daily.
Taking care of parents puts incredible stress on interactions between adult children. The fragile scaffolding of sibling relationships, so carefully constructed over a lifetime, often comes crashing down.
And long buried grievances come up for air.
The estrangement of a sibling is scary because it tugs on the primitive fear of losing connection to your tribe, to the people who are supposed to stick with you no matter what, to be there when everything else falls away.
I suppose the good news is that the pain a relationship causes is directly related to the opportunity for healing. The conflict that makes you want to throttle your sister or brother sits in the crosshairs of where you can most effectively aim your efforts for change and reconciliation.
This week, I’ve asked our readers to share their insights and experiences in building better sibling relationships, and avoiding conflict in the face of aging parents. Here are their suggestions and a few of my own.
Try to Operate as a Team.
Management experts agree that high performing teams always set clear roles and responsibilities, take advantage of diverse skill sets and insist on good communication. It turns out that the most encouraging stories about sibling relationships include at least one of these elements.
Maria Shriver shared with me that, when she was taking care of her parents, she and her brothers set up weekly phone check-ins to discuss pending decisions and things that needed to be done.
One reader told me that she and her sisters call their collective efforts “sisterpower” and convene regularly over www.freeconference.com. They make a point to lift each other’s spirits with funny stories.
Another told me that she and her siblings divide up tasks according to their different strengths and skills. And they make a point of staying in communication as much as possible.
Scheduling a regular call and setting ground rules and rituals around the call time can go a long way towards easing tension. For example, you could plan to end each call by sharing what you most appreciate about each other.
Get Professional Help
Of course conflicts between siblings can make operating as a team difficult. (Also keep in mind that conflicts are much more likely to arise if your parent has dementia or Alzheimers, given the high stress of that situation.)
In these situations, it’s especially important to consider investing in a family counselor – preferably before conflicts become too insurmountable. This is NOT a frivolous expense. Getting help from someone trained in mediation and family therapy can make all the difference.
Counseling can be done over the phone too! Check with your local area agency on aging to get recommendations.
And the Daughterhood doctor, Dr. Leslie Kernisan (“Dr. K”)– who writes Better Health While Aging — reminded me how helpful it can be to have a formal agreement in place to support the sibling who is making a bigger financial sacrifice than the others. If your brother has quit his job to be a full-time caretaker for your mom, how will he be protected against a loss in income and retirement savings?
In these situations, it can be helpful to involve a good family law or elder law attorney to make sure everyone’s protected and has a common legal understanding. Also, Dr. K referred me to guidelines for a “personal care agreement” on the Family Caregiver Alliance website. Check out this important resource.
Dr. Francine Russo wrote a book called, They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. In it, she reminds us how important it is to remember that families are imperfect and to develop strategies to cope with imperfection rather than operating under a “Norman Rockwell” fantasy.
This book has a lot of valuable advice. But, my favorite recommendation is to “examine your own role in your sibling dynamic.” For example do you minimize or criticize whatever your sibling does because if you admit how much she does, you’ll feel guilty? Do you do too much, refuse to ask for help and then play the martyr? Do you shy away from setting boundaries and then act out of rage that you are being taken for granted?
In other words, notice your own emotional reactions and be conscious about them. This is the first step towards peace.
Curb the Bitterness
For me, the absolute most toxic belief I’ve ever held is, “They don’t appreciate me.”
I found that my need to be seen and appreciated is so primal and…. it’s also bottomless. But, I know that ultimately, the only appreciation that can fill the hole is what I show myself and others, not what I’ve receive.
You’ll find some tips on handling resentment in this supercaregivers.com article “Caregiver Sibling Resentment When Looking After Elderly Parents: Is This You?”.
If you’re feeling very brave, you can check out the The Work by Byron Katie who coaches us to look inward at our beliefs and question the judgments we make about others. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done but has brought me the greatest peace internally and externally.
You can also download here our one-page Siblings Survival Guide for Daughterhood and put it on your fridge. When you look at it, imagine that we’re all having a cup of tea or a glass of wine together and know you’re not alone.
Marianne Williamson calls relationships, “….places where the wounds that we hold will be brought up because that’s the only way they can be healed.” In no situation will you be more challenged to do this than with your sisters and brothers as together you care for your aging parents and share this final transition of your first family.
So be brave, be real and do your best to find a path forward with your brothers and sisters. But, if you can’t, go easy on yourself and them. As Ram Dass says, “we’re all just walking each other home.”