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Caregiving Creates Sibling Conflict

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My father is in a nursing home in northern California; I live in southern California.  I can only make quick trips to visit him since I have a full-time job and I need to keep it.  My brother, who lives closer to my father, is resentful that I am not doing more.  He feels he has all of the responsibility.  How do siblings share the “workload” of caring for an aging parent and still maintain a good relationship with one another?  

Answer: Providing care for an ill or aging parent can bring out the best and worst in our relationship with siblings. In a “Brady Bunch” or “Father Knows Best” era, caregiving would serve as an ideal opportunity to come together. But often, that does not happen.

The Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) notes that friction often occurs when there is a “legacy of family dynamics.”  The demands of caregiving often bring out old patterns and unresolved issues.  Adult children often act as children, replaying old family roles.

The spark that can trigger sibling disagreements is the unequal distribution of responsibility for an aging parent.  The FCA writes that even in large families with many siblings, there is almost always one child who assumes the major caregiving responsibilities.

Sometimes that primary role is assumed because of geography, sometimes age and sometimes emotional ties. Regardless of the reason, the primary caregiver often feels some resentment about doing so much.  In this case, it is your brother.

An FCA Caregiver Newsletter provides three recommendations:  “Communicate, communicate and communicate!”  That communication is between your brother and you.

Here are some tips for siblings:

  • Express how your feel:  This requires honesty and openness.  Let your sibling know that his or her help is needed and wanted.
  • Be realistic in your expectations:  This applies to the relationship with your sibling and your parent.
  • Divide the tasks:  One may take responsibility for the “hands-on” care; the other may assume responsibility for finances, legal issues and all paperwork.
  • Respect each others opinions:  Find areas for compromise.
  • Arrange for respite care:  The “hands-on” sibling may need a break.
  • Have a family meeting:  Consider inviting an outside facilitator such as a social worker, religious leader, counselor or friend.  Everyone’s voice needs to be heard.

A meeting can be productive by setting an agenda, focusing on the present and not the past, sharing feelings rather than making accusations, listening and respecting other opinions.

If there still is a problem, a case manager could help in setting up a practical and effective care plan.  Leslie Camozzie, a case manager quoted by the FCA, finds that “Dividing and compartmentalizing care tasks can help reduce sibling conflict.”

Let’s talk about adult sibling relationships.  They are not static.  These relationships have their ups and downs, particularly in response to critical events. We know that siblings share common bonds.  Lillian S. Hawthorne, author of “Sisters and Brothers All of these Years” (VanderWyk & Burnham 2003) describes several:

  • We are connected to our siblings by “genetic glue.”  You can have an ex-spouse or ex-friend, but you cannot have an ex-sibling.
  • We may want a feeling of “togetherness” with our sibling, and still desire to be separate and independent.  We may want to be liked by a sibling, and even want them to be like us.  And yet we prefer to be different and sometimes even better.
  • Sibling relationships probably are the longest relationships that we experience.  They are enduring and continue from the beginning to the end of our lives.

Siblings are closest when they are children.  They share the same home, eat the same food and are exposed to similar experiences.  They typically are our first friends and our first enemies.

The big divide often occurs in adulthood.  During this time, siblings have separated from their parents’ home and are pursuing different lifestyles, activities, friends and interests.  Childhood squabbles may disappear, but the underlying issues that caused them often don’t.

Best wishes to you and your brother in establishing a better relationship with one another.  Your father may be a direct beneficiary.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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