As parents age, their offspring often struggle with caretaking responsibilities. In most families, siblings don’t contribute equally to the care of their parents. The research on the subject shows that the share is often disproportionate, creating resentment and argument between siblings.
In her study, “Conflict and Cooperation Among Adult Siblings During the Transition to the Role of Filial Caregiver,” Deborah Merrill, associate professor of sociology at Clark University, reported that only one-third of the adults surveyed cared for their elderly parent with the help of their siblings.
What creates tension?
Conflicts can rise over financial issues, with some siblings contributing more than others. Distance, location, lack of time, long-harbored resentments or hard feelings tend to also explain why family members may distance themselves or refuse to care for their elderly parents. Some are also unable to cope with the fact that their parent is aging and needs assistance.
Lucinda Roff, professor of social work at the University of Alabama, studied “Long Distance Parental Caregivers’ Experiences with Siblings” and discovered that hometown siblings had different expectations and experiences than siblings living at a distance. According to Roff, distance siblings participate even if only in emotional support; however, much of the support is conflicted—a distant sibling may feel his sister or brother is doing an inadequate job.
Other researchers found tensions mount, rivalries intensify, and siblings have trouble communicating about the care of their parents. It’s logical since the bulk of the care and day-to-day issues generally fall to the sibling who lives closest to the parent(s) in need, most often a daughter, and/or to the sibling who is most financially able.
It seems unfair yet understandable that the less involved sibling would feel she or he could do a better job and is unhappy with the local sibling’s care of their parent. Roff offers a sensible solution to aid in sibling cooperation and to help avoid damaged feelings and resentment: Plan a division of “labor” before the need arises. For only children, she suggests identifying extended family members who would be willing to help if and when the time comes. Aunts, uncles and cousins have more of a choice; if a singleton feels a relative is lukewarm about pitching in, she can ask another.
The problems that arise between siblings at the point they are called on to help a parent are based on family history—who was the favorite or perceived favorite, who had more needs or more attention, who received more financial aid from parents—that can either bond or put siblings at odds.
I’ve recently been monitoring an elderly aunt with health issues and no children. Being the lone relative in close proximity, at times the demands constitute a full-time job. I often feel like an only child, but knew for decades I would be “the one.” My brother lives halfway across the country. “The distant sibling,” Roff points out, “is typically present for only a short period of time, often at a time of crisis.”
Mine is a typical scenario. Yes, it’s wonderful to have support during a parent’s health crisis or long-term care. But, in reality where does the assistance come from? Your siblings? Friends? Your partner? What form does it take? Emotional support in regular or occasional phone calls? On-the-spot help in making hard decisions? Spelling you by visiting your parent, arranging medical assistance, or managing a parent’s finances while you take care of daily needs?
When siblings disappoint, it may be better to rely on partners, spouses, cousins and other extended family… and, of course, good friends. Or, you might consider the alternative solution some Chinese parents take: Elderly couples who feel abandoned by sons who have left the country hire young adult women as “daughters” (some paid, some not) to visit and talk with them on weekends. The women also stop by to cook, clean, or play cards.
Who will care for you?
In almost all cases it is best to prepare by thinking ahead. Put money aside for your care if you can, and sign health care directives. This way, your child or children don’t have to guess what you might want or make heartbreaking decisions if you can’t.