This is a scenario that’s all-too-familiar to siblings with elderly parents. Mom or Dad needs care, but the burden of family caregiving falls on one sibling more heavily than the others. Why can’t family caregiving duties be more equitable? Perhaps not everyone has been assigned a role.
“What we suggest if there are siblings is that you divide and conquer,” says Mark Gibbons, director of programs and operations for the Caregiver Action Network, a non-profit organization providing free education, peer support, and resources to family caregivers across the country. “For instance, one sibling is the power of attorney for legal matters. Another is the power of attorney for medical matters. You try to split up the various responsibilities.”
In some cases, geography is the main culprit for why one sibling is more responsible for caregiving than others. If only one sibling lives in the same town as Mom or Dad, the duties almost inevitably gravitate toward that person. Perhaps it starts out with the sibling taking the parent to doctor’s appointments, then helping out with monthly bills and picking up weekly groceries. Eventually, the sibling is visiting the parent’s household every day to handle caregiving responsibilities.
This same scenario can play out even if there are several siblings living in the same town, but one sibling doesn’t have a job outside the home. The siblings with full-time jobs don’t have the flexibility in their schedules to meet their parent’s needs, so the burden falls disproportionately to the individual who supposedly has the time—but then their time gets encroached upon to the point that caregiving is like a full-time job.
How do you help make the situation more equitable so that all siblings are doing their part? Here are some suggestions.
1. Do online research.
Those who do not live in the same city as their parent can provide assistance in other ways. For instance, Gibbons suggests they spend time looking for various resources online. One great resource he mentioned is the Area Agencies on Aging, which provides information about senior-related programs and services such as Meals on Wheels, transportation, in-home assistance, senior housing, long-term care, and family caregiver support. Out-of-town siblings can research and line up these programs for their parent and at the same time give their in-town sibling a break.
2. Stay in touch by phone.
Though some adult children can’t physically be with their parents every day, they can sill stay in touch by phone. Just a simple phone call is a great way to break up the day, especially if the primary family caregiver has a job outside the home. “Let’s say you’re working and you have to leave Mom alone during the day. In that case, have siblings call to see how Mom is doing,” Gibbons suggests. “You can set up a schedule to make sure at least someone is checking in every day. It could be, ‘Tom, you call Mom today,’ and ‘Suzy, you call Mom tomorrow.’ That way, every day, she’s communicating with at least one of her children.”
3. Help out financially.
For those siblings who are unable to contribute their equitable share of time to caregiving, they can contribute financially instead. For instance, Gibbons suggests, perhaps they can purchase cameras or monitoring equipment to ensure that Mom is using the stove safely or that Dad hasn’t fallen. (Note: Gain your parents’ permission for this and ensure that it’s not an invasion of their privacy.)
Additionally, Gibbons suggests that a sibling could pay for the cost of an in-home health aide or assistant, which will free up the family caregiver to run errands, spend time caring for their own children, or just take a much-needed break.
4. Look outside the family.
If the burden of caregiving falls disproportionately to one family member, remember that there are outside resources available. For instance, perhaps the parent can spend several days a week at an adult day center. “That not only gives the caregiver a break but also gives the parent a chance to interact with other seniors—playing board games, having lunch, or just talking,” Gibbons says. “There are various programs sponsored by churches and civic organizations. Some of them will even pick up and drop off your parent for free.”
5. Visit when you can.
For siblings who live a far distance away, among the best ways to assist your in-town siblings is to make regular visits—at least annually or semi-annually. This enables you to visit with your parent and also provides a much-needed respite to your caregiving sibling. “If Mom or Dad is capable of traveling, perhaps they can spend some time—a week or two—visiting with you,” Gibbons suggests.
6. Resolve disagreements.
Sometimes siblings have disagreements about an elderly parent’s care—i.e., is it best for Mom to stay at home, live with a sibling, or move into senior living? Sometimes it takes an outside mediator to resolve the conflict. “Bring in someone you respect, such as a pastor or a counselor,” Gibbons suggests. “Sometimes listening to Pastor Ron can bring a new perspective to the situation.”
In some cases, the dispute may revolve around who is in the best position to be the family caregiver. Instances of gender stereotyping may complicate the resolution, as Gibbons points out. “Brothers may think the most appropriate person to be the caregiver is their sister.”
A recent study confirms that women do wind up caring for their aging parents approximately twice as much as men, perhaps as a result of such stereotypes. More important than gender is a determination of who is in the best position to handle caregiving responsibilities. “Sometimes it’s as simple as making a list to figure out what needs to be done,” says Gibbons.
7. Respect parent’s wishes.
The parent’s wishes should be front and center in any discussions about caregiving. In some cases, the best solution is a move into senior living, but it’s best to reach a consensus about that among all parties involved—the parent as well as the adult children.
“Having those conversations isn’t easy,” affirms Gibbons. “It’s always best if you can do it before the decision becomes critical—who’s going to take care of Mom and Dad? They’re healthy now, but in a year or two, they may not be. So, take advantage of those opportunities when you’re together—such as the holidays or summer vacations—to have those hard discussions. Ultimately you want to come to some decisions that everybody can agree to and support.”
CHIME IN: How do you and your siblings make family caregiving equitable?