The challenge of caring for an elderly parent, especially one with Alzheimer’s disease or other form of dementia, can have a damaging ripple effect on the rest of the family. Inevitably, the burden of daily phone calls, food shopping, doctor’s visits and financial support falls more heavily on some family members than others – typically, those who live closest to the parent. And typically women, studies show.
This can generate serious tension and resentment among siblings that can simmer for months -- or even years -- before exploding in potentially destructive ways.
“Of all the difficulties family caregivers face, one of the biggest sources of stress is trying to get on the same page with our siblings,” writes elder-care expert Jody Gastfiend in an Aug. 29 column on Forbes magazine’s website. “While many siblings experience increased closeness caring for their parents, others grow apart.”
Gastfriend cites a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s association that found six out of 10 family caregivers feel they don’t get enough support from their siblings when caring for an elderly parent.
Gastfriend’s column – titled “When Siblings Share the Caregiving for an Aging Parent, Will It Be Welfare or Warfare?” -- is a must-read for anyone in this situation. Gastfriend is uniquely qualified to offer advice, having spent years caring for her own parents. She now serves as vice president of senior-care services at Care.com, the leading online marketplace for home-care services.
Gastfriend also is the author of an excellent new book titled “My Parent’s Keeper: The Guilt, Grief, Guesswork and Unexpected Gifts of Caregiving” (Yale University Press). In an earlier blog post, I highlighted a chapter of the book that addresses the thorny issue of how to care for aging parents who don’t want help.
In her Forbes column, Gastfriend relates the true story of two sisters who suddenly were faced with the challenge of caring for an 89-year-old father who developed Parkinson’s disease. One sister, Kelly, took the initiative to hire a caregiver to help her father with meals, light housekeeping, errands and other essential tasks. But the other sister, Fran, became furious when she learned about the arrangement. Fran felt strongly that her father should be transferred to an assisted-living facility.
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard,” Kelly told Gastfriend. “After all, my sister and I both love my father. Why can’t we agree on things?”
According to Gastfriend, a common source of conflict among siblings is differing perceptions of a.) how serious a parent’s condition is, and b.) the best way to help. If family members can’t reach a consensus, Gastriend recommends seeking professional guidance from an eldercare manager, also known as an aging life care manager. You can find one through the Aging Life Care Association, which maintains a database searchable by zip code.
Another source of conflict is money. Gastfriend cites a recent AARP report that says family members together spend an average of $7,000 per year caring for an elderly parent.
“When siblings fight over money, they can lose sight of what is in the best interest of their parents. If disagreements become entrenched, it may be worth reaching out for expert help.”
Among those most qualified to offer advice in this area are elder-care attorneys and financial planners.
Sibling conflicts can be avoided, or at least mitigated, by holding a family meeting – a topic I addressed in an earlier blog post. The Family Caregiver Alliance offers a comprehensive how-to guide on planning and conducting a family meeting.
It’s essential that family members begin communicating early and often, because the stress level will only increase when it comes time to discuss end-of-life care.
As Gastfriend observes, “all the forces that pull us apart and hold us together can come roaring to the surface as families face difficult decisions regarding end-of-life care. … Planning ahead can avoid the risk of intractable conflicts that may linger for years –- even generations -- after the death of a parent.”
Of course discussing a parent’s impending death is perhaps the most difficult –- and stressful -– conversation siblings will ever face. If you feel you need help in this area, a good resource is The Conversation Project, a website that offers a free “starter kit” to guide siblings in their discussions.
Written by T.J. Foderaro