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Getting Along to Care for Mom

If you share caregiving responsibilities with siblings, these tips can help

My brother and I, normally close, have had a strained relationship for the past 18 months. The cause is sad but common: We don't agree on the roles each of us should play in caring for our aging mother.

As the older (and, in my mind, wiser) brother, I took the lead in moving our mother from Florida to an apartment near my Pennsylvania home. I think I know what's best for her — and what my brother and I should each provide her. He lives 350 miles away and has a different take on her well-being: He doesn't think she needs as much help as I do, so he's less willing to make the sacrifices I think he should.

Senior mother and two daughters. Sibling relationships and caregiving.

Beware that caregiving disagreements don't create resentments that cause long-term relationship damage. — Golden Pixels/Alamy

Like many adult siblings in caregiving situations, our disagreement has taken on the cast of old childhood dynamics.

In his mind, I'm still playing the bullying older brother who has always tried to dictate to him. In my mind, he's still the stubborn younger brother who won't live up to his family responsibilities.

Pulling together to care for Mom or Dad makes some adult siblings as close as comrades-in-arms.

In my clinical experience, however, many sibling disagreements over what needs to be done (and who should do it) create resentments that frequently simmer, occasionally explode and invariably cause long-term damage. If you're sharing a caregiving role with one or more siblings, these tips may help:

Remember that the stakes are high

When siblings coordinate efforts to care for parents, the parents receive better overall care. Conversely, you can't be an effective advocate with health care and social services professionals if you're too busy taking swipes at a brother or sister. Indeed, sibling squabbles can compound the suffering of the loved ones they are ostensibly trying to help.

Keep in mind that you'll be judged for your caregiving choices for decades after a parent eventually dies: No brother or sister will ever forget who was there in Mom's hour of need — and who else was too busy pursuing his own career, or raising her own kids or grandkids, to pitch in. Memories like these have the weight and permanence of chiseled stone.

Beware of reversion

My brother and I can attest to the fact that caring for an aging parent revives childhood rivalries. Siblings may find themselves jockeying for decision-making power, or maneuvering to become a parent's favorite. Remind yourself that you are all adults now — no need to revive the relationship patterns of your early family life. Reason and mutual respect are the best ways to achieve liberation from the past, as well as to safeguard a parent's future.

Shelve the sexism

All this applies likewise to gender roles. Too often, brothers expect their sisters to bear the brunt of caregiving; after all, didn't females do more family-oriented work (such as household chores) when they were all growing up together? But what woman would not fume at a brother who shirks his caregiving responsibilities today? Only when gender expectations are set aside can siblings become effective partners.

Equality is unrealistic — and possibly inefficient

Few groups of siblings achieve a perfect division of caregiving duties: For reasons having to do with time, resources, proximity and personality, one or more almost always winds up taking more initiative than the others. This may, in fact, be a better way for the group to decide quickly and act fast. What's important is that every sibling be allowed to contribute in some way. Think about holding quarterly meetings to fine-tune the caregiving plan; this builds a more cohesive team and gives you a forum where you can acknowledge each sibling's contributions.

Be kind to one another

Caregiving is frustrating; not every aging parent is cooperative or appreciative, and some are downright rude. Caregiving tasks can be unpleasant, testing the patience of even the most devoted offspring. It's OK for siblings to vent their frustrations to one another — so long as it goes no further than that! Recognize that this is hard work, and treat your caregiving partners with empathy.

Advice is easy to give but hard to implement

I'm still trying to apply the counsel above in my relationship with my brother. The mutual respect is there — we've both acknowledged we make sizable sacrifices on Mom's behalf — and the kindness is slowly returning. We have more work to do, but at least we know we are tackling it.

Clinical psychologist and family therapist Barry J. Jacobs writes regularly about caregiving issues for AARP. He is the author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent.

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