Does this family scenario sound familiar? An ever-helpful, younger sibling lives a short distance from her elderly parents and for quite a while now has been spending an increasing amount of time as caregiver for her mother and father. An older sister lives several states away and is for the most part a “non-participant” in her parents care — both physically and psychologically. The older sister often has feelings of guilt for being so removed from her family, but at the same time, neither her parents or her sister typically ask for any help. In the rare instances when the younger sister reaches out, it doesn’t take long for them to disagree on how a certain situation should be handled.

It can be difficult for families who have never gotten along to make decisions together, especially when there are multiple siblings with varying beliefs, caregiving styles, and personalities. A recent article in Forbes magazine, states that 61% of sibling caregivers feel they don’t get the support they need from their siblings. Watching our parents decline can make us more emotional, irrational, and volatile. And…there’s something else: it can often remind us that we’re next in line.

“When siblings squabble over who will care for mom or dad, or refuse to help one another with caregiving tasks, the problem often isn’t about the caregiving itself, but rather conflicts and power struggles that may have existed since childhood.”

What Siblings Disagree Over

Why the sibling strife? You name it!

Caregiving Arrangements
Live-in, live out, or family help? Should technology be utilized to remind parents to take their medications and alert you if they don’t? Who will dispense medications, interview caregivers, or oversee the whole process?

Disparities and Inequities

Is each sibling pulling his or her own weight (money, tasks, and/or time)? Is the hometown child, or daughter saddled with more responsibility and resentful of out-of-town siblings?

Family Possessions
Who gets what when a parent downsizes or moves or after a death?

Finances and Money
How should the money be spent? Will there be expenses over caregiving and who handles finances if mom or dad is no longer oversee things?

Independence and Safety
Who will think about asking the parent to give up those car keys if it becomes necessary? Who will ensure fall prevention, especially if the parent is living alone?

Living Arrangements
Should dad stay in the family home or is too isolating, unrealistic, or unsafe? If not, where should he go?

Medical Decisions
Who makes sensitive decisions when there are differences of opinion about the end of life or treatment?

Ways to Take Action to Avoid Conflict

To head off conflict down the road, it’s important, while the initial dialogue can be difficult, for siblings to try to have open conversation early on about their roles, even though their parents are still younger and/or healthier.

It’s quite typical for one sibling to handle emotional and lifestyle issues, while the other can be in charge of medical decisions. Financial decisions can go either way. Sometimes one sibling takes the lead for those concerns, while with other families, it’s a joint decision.

Use the following strategies if you’re trying to stop an ongoing struggle with siblings over senior care:

Be empathetic. Be understanding of your siblings’ circumstances, of your parents’, and of your own. It’s a stressful time for everyone.

Divvy up responsibilities according to each person’s strengths. Let them choose what they want to tackle, e.g. communicating with doctors, paying bills online, or researching housing options.

Don’t expect a miracle! If your sister was always selfish, she may not change. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to get her to pitch in.

Hold your tongue. How important is it if you and your brother don’t do everything the same way? Unless it’s a safety issue, button up!

Just ask! Have your parents participate in decision-making, or at least let them weigh in, if it’s realistic.

Keep everyone in the loop. There are now websites that let family members collect all the information in one place (from caregiving and medical to tasks that need to get done) and log in any time. Convene regular family conferences, preferably in person, or otherwise via conference calls, Facetime® or Skype®.

Spell out your needs. Maybe a sibling should know what you need, but maybe they have no clue. Perhaps they think you don’t want help.

Time Out! If an issue becomes contentious, take a break, calm yourself, then address the topic at another time. Apologize if it’s warranted.

Vent appropriately. Visit a caregiving forum or website, learn how others have handled tough situations. Call a friend. See a therapist or talk to clergy. Just know that there are professionals available to help families untangle issues relating to aging parents and help all parties make decisions.