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How to Write ‘The Letter’ to Uncooperative Sibling Caregivers

Make a straightforward appeal for assistance with a loved one

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“My three brothers make me furious,” said 60-year-old Lynn during a psychotherapy session. “I’m caring for their mother, and they hardly ever call her or me. They are so wrapped up in their own lives. But what about us?”

I empathized with Lynn. Over more than three decades speaking with caregivers, I’d heard more anger expressed about neglectful adult siblings than any other caregiving challenge. I’d also seen many caregivers try and fail to rectify this unfair treatment by family members who supposedly loved them. What Lynn said next didn’t surprise me.

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“When I have tried bringing this up with them,” she went on, “I’ve gotten nowhere. One brother makes promises to help which he doesn’t keep. He says his wife puts a lot of demands on him at home. Another brother gets angry at me for trying to control him. A third doesn’t even return my calls anymore. I don’t know what to do.”

Many caregivers, such as Lynn, eventually decide to stop beating their heads against a seeming brick wall and bitterly accept their siblings won’t assist them. They announce they will never talk with those siblings again after their parent’s funeral. It’s not unusual for them to follow through with this, leading to the family’s permanent dissolution.

Before making that decision, however, I suggest they attempt one last effort to engage neglectful siblings in what should be a united effort to support a common parent. I recommend, however, a “revolutionary” method for reaching out which sometimes helps caregivers break through the thicket of busyness, denial and procrastination many brothers and sisters hide behind. I call it “The Letter” — literally a handwritten missive placed in an envelope with a licked stamp and a hand-scrawled address. Since most communication is conducted instantly nowadays by text, Facebook message, email, videoconferencing and phone, it is almost shocking for wayward family members to receive information via this somewhat old-fashioned method.

So how can neglected adult child caregivers effectively craft the letter? There are several steps:

Approach the letter with care

We live in a world in which so many messages compete for our attention that we’ve all become adept at ignoring most of them. This may be especially true of emails that clog overfilled inboxes we struggle to keep up with. But when we unexpectedly receive a letter through the U.S. mail with handwriting we vaguely recognize, the sheer novelty sparks our curiosity. We consequently pay more attention to its content than we ordinarily do for any other communication. We will read that letter twice, maybe three times, slowly absorbing its message rather than immediately deflecting it.

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Make a straightforward appeal, not a direct attack

Lynn wanted to blast her brothers in her Letter, but I cautioned her that screeds trigger defensiveness, even belligerence, rather than cooperation. I suggested instead she use a frank, matter-of-fact and nondramatic tone in individual letters tailored to each of her brothers. For instance, she might state, “Bob, taking care of Mom is not easy some days. We can use more support. Would you be willing to try to help to some degree?” I recommended that she include a specific and manageable way for each brother to be helpful — for example, “Bob, may I send you Mom’s recent insurance forms to look over?”

Make it personal

Lynn was afraid that, if she made a direct appeal her brothers didn’t respond to, then she’d never be able to forgive them. I answered by saying she was so angry with them that she already didn’t have friendly relations with them. I suggested she put her relationship with each brother on the line by adding personal stakes to her Letter. For instance, she might write, “I’m not asking you to help with the caregiving just for Mom’s sake. I’m asking you to help me. If you decide to help, then I’ll know you value our relationship. If you decide not to help, then I will have my doubts.” As with any invitation to engage, the letter should include a request for RSVP with a time limit. Any response — even excuses for why a sibling can’t help — is better than no response, which often indicates that sibling is completely unreachable.  

As is not unusual, Lynn received a range of replies. One brother suddenly agreed to take on a care task after he showed the letter to his spouse and she gave him the OK. Another texted her a week later, saying he’d do what he could once he completed a work project. The third brother never responded. Their answers weren’t what Lynn would have ideally wanted or thought were fair, but she had some satisfaction she and Mom were going to receive at least a little more assistance.

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