Siblings: The Sticky Subjects

Conversations between siblings about care for an older adult are layered with emotion and just might have lasting impacts on the sibling relationships for years to come. 

The truth is that most siblings don’t talk about care management roles until it is essential. Nobody wants to have a stressful conversation in the hospital corridor. We want you to be prepared to calmly navigate care for your parent or in-law. 

You are not alone! There are common sibling care controversies. There are also tools to move forward with purposeful and peaceful care conversations.

My parents are healthy…

If you have healthy older adults in your care circle, why should you make a plan with siblings now? Let me illustrate why this is so important with a story.

Adam’s perfectly healthy dad, George, had a fall one afternoon where he hit his head so hard he had a brain injury resulting in him being unable to speak clearly or make decisions. In a matter of minutes, Adam went from “my dad is perfectly healthy” to trying to figure out if he or his sister was the healthcare proxy. He didn’t know if his dad had his wishes defined and where in the world that paperwork was, if it existed at all. His sister thought her dad had asked her to be the healthcare proxy, but Adam said his dad had talked to him about it over golf one day. His sister was furious with Adam over how he was directing the care for their father when she thought it was her role, but Adam felt he was just trying to do his best in a terrifying and chaotic situation. Neither of them thought the other person was in the right role nor did they know what their dad would want, except for them not to be fighting. 

Three sibling sticky areas

You may be thrust very suddenly into figuring out care for an older adult. Are there other family members involved also? If so, there are three common barriers to setting up a successful care team: personal agendas, childhood roles and division of responsibilities.

Challenge: Personal Agendas

At work, we clearly define project goals at the onset, so it’s clear when they’ve been achieved. While a caregiving journey is likely not as quantifiable as your work projects, it’s just as important to define the overarching goals.

Solution: Establishing common goals

Among siblings, start your conversation with your common goals. 

  1. We all want to respect our older adults’ wishes and needs as much as possible.
  2. We don’t want angst or division between us during this time or for the years following.

Once we agree on these basic goals, it’s much easier to shift care decisions and strategies. We recommend restating the common goals to start each care plan meeting.

Challenge: Childhood Roles

Let’s say you and your siblings have defined the key goals, but that doesn’t really make up for the fact that your brother has always been the (insert primary trait from childhood) one and your sister will likely be (insert primary trait from childhood). The roles your siblings played in your family are decades old. Are you assuming that they are the same people they were in childhood? You have likely evolved past those early stereotypes or roles and want your siblings to see you for who you are today, many years later. 

Solution: Recognize current strengths

Instead of dragging those old assumptions into this season, can you put yourself in a neutral, curious and even grace-filled posture when it comes to who your siblings are and what they are capable of? We all have different strengths. Each sibling has an opportunity to help in a way that fits their strengths and giftings. That’s a beautiful thing.

Challenge: What’s “fair”?

When you and your siblings were young, there were likely feelings of what was “fair” between you. Remember the heated argument of who got the piece of cake with the big green frosting-filled flower on it? Now that everyone is older you already know that most of life isn’t “fair”, but in addition to that, you and your sibling’s lives are significantly more complicated as there are geographic locations, spouses, kids, jobs, health and individual finances that factor in for each person. All of that wasn’t a factor when you were jockeying for the piece of cake with the green frosting-filled flower on it. The notion of siblings each covering their “fair share” of care navigation just isn’t realistic. 

Solution: Accept imbalance and ask for or offer support

The truth is that usually the majority of the caregiving responsibilities fall on one or two people’s shoulders. It’s helpful to accept that and let go of what’s “fair”. The individual taking on the bulk of the care can take time to define how others can help; other family members can support in the ways requested.

The power of the family meeting

A well-prepared family meeting creates a way forward. 

To help you suggest or run a family care meeting, we have two great options:

  1. Ask a friend to facilitate your family’s care meeting. Ask for input on an agenda from family members. Encourage everyone to arrive with the common goal of supporting the older adult (and with a “neutral” personal agenda.)
  2. Enlist the support of a Ways & Wane Care Advisor to facilitate a family meeting. Having an unbiased, professional third party involved can be a way to reach a decision especially if sibling relations are complex or the necessary decisions are weighty. 

You may not be able to get absolutely everything in place, but whatever steps you take, however small, can ease the stress of managing care for the older adults in your family circle.