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When Siblings Disagree About What's Best for Mom and Dad

Here's how to make sure caring for your aging parents brings you closer, not tears you part

En español | If your relationship with your siblings is like most families, you've no doubt had your disagreements over the years. So you shouldn't be surprised if you've got different ideas on the best way to help your aging parents.

See also: Set up your caregiving team.

According to a recent study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, 7 in 10 caregivers said other family members had pitched in from time to time. But only 1 in 10 reported that the responsibility was shared equally or without conflict. What's going on?

Experts say that when faced with important decisions about caregiving, siblings often slip back into old family roles. That's when simmering resentments and old rivalries can take the form of heated discussions or out-and-out arguments.

Still, the experience of caring for an elderly loved one can actually foster a closeness that escaped battling brothers and sisters all these years. Here's how:

1. Call a family meeting before a crisis occurs. If your parent's health deteriorates rapidly, you'll be grappling with tough issues; you don't want to do that when you're under pressure. Look for signs of decline: Unpaid bills; missed appointments; a dirty or cluttered home that used to be neat and clean; disheveled appearance of a once fastidious dresser. These are all red flags that it's time to get together. If meeting in person isn't possible, check online for free teleconferencing services. Plan to meet or teleconference at least once a week so everyone is up-to-date on what's happening and what's needed.

2. Have an open mind. Leave childhood labels and emotional baggage at the door: You may be the oldest, but that doesn't mean you know more than your baby brother who lives down the street from Mom and sees on a daily basis just how forgetful she's become. If at any point the conversation gets heated, table the discussion for 30 minutes and begin again.

3. Define each person's role but keep it fluid. Usually whoever lives closest to an aging parent, or has fewer work and family obligations, will take on the most caregiving duties. But there are many other jobs to do besides making sure a parent eats well and gets to medical appointments on time. Who's going to pay bills? Go grocery shopping and clean the bathroom? Schedule doctor appointments, social activities and other important visits? Research community services, such as the Eldercare Locator, for help finding local support groups and services to ease the burden.

4. Consider hiring a mediator. How to pay for care is often a trigger for tension. Fueled by longtime resentments or current income disparities, these arguments must be resolved since they affect so many other decisions: Where the person will live, whether a particular medical intervention is needed and whether he can afford a housekeeper. You'll need to sift through information on Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance policies to figure out what services are covered and by whom. If conversations quickly become confrontations, a therapist, social worker, clergyman or attorney with experience dealing with these issues can keep ideas flowing and focused on goals. Consider designating one person — either a trusted physician or someone in a health profession — as a "medical quarterback" to help you and your parents weigh the benefits and risks of different medical opinions and treatments.

5. Show your gratitude. Be a sounding board for the primary caregiver and each other and check in regularly to show your support and appreciation, as well as to offer whatever assistance you can. Visit often to relieve the primary caregiver, even if she hasn't asked. Can't swing that? Pay for respite or live-in care so the one in charge gets a much-needed break.

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