Siblings and Caregiving: A Shoulder to Lean On or a Wellspring of Stress?

A multigenerational family out for a picnic with a relative who uses a wheelchair.

As an only child, I have never had the experience of sharing parental caregiving work with a sister or brother. Yet, in talking with friends, it seems like siblings can often be a source of anxiety. In 1994, J. Jill Suitor of Louisiana State University and Karl Pillemer of Cornell University conducted a study of women caring for parents with dementia. They found that siblings were cited as the most important source of interpersonal stress.

In more than one instance, women friends have told me that their brothers feel like their parent doesn't need extra help. That most certainly creates tension between siblings, but also between the children and parent. Let's say that your aging mother has dementia, but is in denial about her condition. When your brothers refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation, they suddenly become the heroes to your mother and you are the wicked child.

Or perhaps, you feel like your parent would receive the best care at home, while your sibling feels like Mom or Dad should be moved to either assisted living or a skilled nursing facility. How do you find some middle ground?

The Family Caregiver Alliance has several suggestions for addressing family dynamics. These include:

  • Obtaining a professional assessment from a doctor, social workers, or care manager. Sharing information from an objective source can help to get people on the same page about the nature of the situation and the urgency.

  • Holding a family meeting to discuss your parent's needs. Try to have an unemotional conversation about what each individual can offer, whether that is time or money. If tensions are running high, it may be useful to ask a trusted individual from outside the family to moderate the discussion.

  • If the situation isn't urgent, family members may just need time to adjust to the new reality. Sharing information may be a good way to get everyone on the same page over time.

Have you had experience (either positive or negative) dealing with family dynamics, while navigating the waters of elder care? I'd be interested to hear what worked well for others…