Were you daddy’s girl or the perfect first born? Maybe you were the black sheep, the “free spirit,” or the one that moved far away. For some of you, you are simply the only one. No matter what your role in the family or how that role contributed or hindered your life, you will likely have to re-live your role a little as you come together with your original family to deal with an aging or ill parent.
One Author, Francine Russo, in her book “They’re Your Parents Too!,” has referred to this time period as the “twilight transition.” Others talk about it as the last phase of your “childhood” family. You will move from being a child in the family to being the matriarch or patriarch – the decision makers of the family. In any event, it marks the end of the original family in which you grew up.
Clinging to Old Roles
There are old feelings from our childhood that will come back. Some of these include old hurts, long-standing competition with a certain sibling, and most significantly, our perceived role in the family. The less healthy the family, the more the roles have remained rigid from childhood. In other words, if you were the one who got in trouble in 8th grade, you may still be perceived as the “bad kid” even if you have significantly changed (as most people do) from your pre-teen self. You may have made just one mistake in the past and still have eyes of suspicion that you are the one that “can’t handle money” or “can’t drive a car” after decades have passed. In the converse, you may be the responsible one who everyone will rely on to fix everything. Even in really healthy families, reverting to and clinging to old family roles often happens in times of crisis.
Activities for Seniors
Decisions that need to be made by Siblings When a Parent Needs Care
- How will finances be handled to care for the parent now?
- How will assets be divided in the future?
- How will the parent be cared for? – In the home, at a nursing home, moving in with one of you?
- Who is in charge?
- Who will deal with the money?
- Who will be the main caregiver who attends to mom’s physical needs?
- How ill or frail is the person and what level of care is needed?
- Who will make medical and end-of-life decisions?
- In the case of the only child:
- Who do you have to talk to?
- How do you know you are doing the right things?
- Who will help you?
- How can you manage other extended family who may disagree?
The difficulty of these decisions will be enhanced if there are no previously defined instructions from the parent - like a will and advanced directives - and /or if the parent is incapable of making choices now due to dementia or other health limitations.
So How Do You Make the Best of It?
If you are reading this article, chances are, you are one of the main caregivers already. If you are close to the parent, getting his or her ideas on the above decisions first is helpful. Talking to each sibling one on one about ideas and decisions is also a good starting place so you know where there are any potential disagreements or conflicts
Then plan a meeting. A meeting is really helpful because many of the games people play are hard to do in a group (like talking about others behind their backs or making up excuses, etc.). There is simply more accountability if everyone is talking in the same place at the same time. If someone is too far away to travel for the meeting, you can consider skype or bringing someone into the meeting by phone.
If you have talked with everyone one on one before the meeting, you can outline the decisions that need to be made and what the potential solutions are and encourage consensus to solve the issues with the following agenda in mind:
- First: What is best for our parent?
- Second: What is best for keeping our generation of family together?
If you have these goals in mind, it can bring a shared vision beyond what is in it for each person individually and can focus the discussion on the present situation rather than on past roles and hurts from childhood.
Building Consensus with Your Siblings
- There needs to be a shared vision and assessment on the condition of the parent. If there is disagreement, maybe further information is needed from a doctor or other professional. If three of you think that mom is “fine” and one is saying “she can’t take care of herself anymore” you will have a hard time with all the other decisions. Sometimes the person closest to the parent sees things the others don’t see and sometimes, the person farthest who comes for a visit can detect a decline that those closest just didn’t register. It may take time to get everyone on the same page with this one and it is important to not pressure others to your own viewpoint.
- What can/should be done to help the parent? This may involve some fact finding in terms of what resources are available to the parent in his or her area. Does she need help with groceries and getting to bed at night – but she is great during the day? Is she in need of any specialized care? There are wonderful resources to help guide these types of decisions like the eldercare locator, and your local Area Agency on Aging.
- Who is willing to do what? If one of you is great with money and dealing with agencies, that would be a great job for you to have. Maybe one of you is more financially well off but busy – can that person pay for some homemaker services? Everyone should be expected to contribute something – even if it is just a supportive role to the main caregiver. Such support can include calling, listening, fact-finding, and offering periodic respite and breaks. In any event, you will want to consider playing to everyone’s strengths and offering what each of you are likely to follow-through on well.
Being the Only Child
As an only child, you are probably thinking – how can I hold a meeting? With Whom? While it may not be much consolation, the reality is, most caregiving falls to one person in most families even when there are many siblings. Only 10% of caregivers report having an even distribution of caregiving among siblings. You may be particularly alone though if you have no one to share ideas with. You may suffer from a sense of isolation and being unsure of yourself without the reality checks inherent in a bigger family.
It is, therefore, important to get outside support for yourself. Consider including a trusted extended family member or close personal friend of your parent when making decisions. Hiring a counselor for yourself is another option. Get familiar with your parent’s doctor and key staff at your local Area Agency of Aging - these people can and often do offer a great sounding board for when you feel like you would not like to be the only one making an important decision for your parent. Community services can also offer respite and assistance like meals on wheels and volunteer chore services.
It is important to ask other people in your parents’ life to visit more often to ease the burden from being the only person that your parent relies on for social and practical support.
If you are far away, read about how you can care from a distance. If you are the main person dealing with the money, bear in mind that if you periodically submit financial information to the other siblings without their being asked, it will increase their trust and confidence in you. If you are the main caregiver, you need to keep in touch with everyone. One way to do this is to set up a weekly conference call so you can (again in front of the whole gang) ask if people followed through with their tasks, ask for help, or provide an update on the condition of your parent. This kind of communication fosters trust and accountability and enables the primary caregiver to easily ask for help.
Share Feelings and Bring Understanding
If a good line of communication is present - like a weekly phone call – encourage people to talk openly about how they are feeling and learn tips for handling tough conversations. There are so many emotions present for all of you that airing these things can sometimes prevent unnecessary conflicts. Try not to take all things personally as each sibling will be experiencing different feelings that may come out as anger. For instance, one sibling may simply be too reminded of his own mortality when talking about an aging parent and his hostility may be less about you and more a way to not address what is really a fundamental fear for him. Be easy with each other as everyone reacts differently to an aging parent. Some people become depressed, some will be in denial that the parent is aging at all, some will throw themselves into work and avoid everyone, and some will try to take super control of everything. Some will be grieving a parent they once knew differently. Some will have unresolved issues from childhood that the others simply don’t have. Be patient with each other, encourage everyone to read this article, and try to come together for your parent and for your family as a whole.