Caring For Elderly Parents: How to Get Siblings to Help

Caring for aging parents can be stressful, and any family conflicts, old grudges or resentments are likely to re-emerge between siblings because of it. Changing your perceptions, your reactions when your “buttons” are pushed and your attitude about your siblings can make discussions and decisions about your elderly parents easier.

Here are five ways you can improve relationships with your siblings:

  1. 1. Get to know your sibling as adults. Learn how they saw their childhood. You may have heard of studies testing people’s perceptions. For instance, three people who witness an accident are interviewed about what they saw and give three different versions of the event, all equally certain that what they saw is what happened. Many factors, like personality, place in the family (middle, oldest) and individual life experiences have an impact on how we view the world.
  2. 2. Look for evidence that what you believe to be true about your siblings really is. For example, if you have a sibling you always thought was your parent’s favorite, ask if they saw it that way. You may be surprised. Someone recently recounted a conversation to me that she and her sister had. The younger sister told her older sister that she always saw herself as the black sheep of the family. This surprised the older sister because that’s how she saw herself! A younger brother who you felt never took things seriously growing up may have developed the ability to approach serious issues in a lighthearted way. He may now be just the person to talk to your parents about difficult decisions that need to be made.
  3. 3. Notice what buttons your siblings push so you can choose to respond differently. For better or worse, being around family can make the best of us revert back to childhood behavior–if we let it. A client once told me that whenever she was around her brother he’d invariably recount childhood events where she’d made mistakes. One time, rather than laughing it off or getting defensive, she asked him if he could remember anything she’d done well. He was stunned and told her that of course he could. He hasn’t recounted any stories critical of her since.
  4. 4. Talk about significant childhood events (or even events in adulthood) when your sibling’s actions or words hurt you. What stands out for you may have been a non-event for them. They may appreciate knowing the effect they inadvertently had on you. It gives your siblings a chance to share their version of events and perhaps to apologize. This should be a two-way street. Your siblings should have the opportunity to share any old hurts or issues they may have with you.
  5. 5. Pay attention to how you treat your siblings. Scott Myers, a professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, researched how siblings interact with each other and found that “we are much more verbally aggressive with our siblings than with anyone else.” (To read a summary of the study: Is it possible there are things you may have said or done to your siblings that would help explain their unwillingness or reluctance to offer to help you care for your parents?

If your family was really dysfunctional–the communication style was arguing or yelling or, everyone was expected to follow the “party line” (or family line)–you may need outside help in dealing with your siblings. A therapist can help you repair relationships with your siblings and to communicate with each other more effectively.

Repairing or improving your relationships with your siblings can make it easier to handle the challenging job of taking care of aging parents. It also provides an opportunity for you to lean on each other for emotional support as your parents decline.

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