Back From the Holidays — How Did Those Senior Care Conversations Go?


Were the New Year's Eve sparklers the only fireworks at your family holiday gathering, or did arguments about elder care erupt? During holiday visits, adult children visiting from out of town may realize that their older parents' needs have changed — and when that happens, siblings can have very different ideas about what should happen and who should do what!

Family gathering at New Year's Eve

Even if all the brothers and sisters agree that Mom and Dad need help, they might disagree about whether the folks are safe at home, how much care they need, and how independent they can be. Maybe a sister who lives near Dad says he needs the assistance of in-home care — but her brother is in denial and thinks Dad is fine. Maybe he thinks his sister is controlling, or maybe he just doesn't want to chip in for the costs. Another sister swoops into town and criticizes the care of the one who lives nearby. "Fine, you take it over!" is the likely response. The visit can end with hard feelings and resentment all around.

This isn't good for anyone! Family friction is unproductive, and can even be unhealthy. And while most people are aware that marital conflict is stressful, a recent study published by the American Psychological Society revealed that, in fact, having a poor relationship with our parents and siblings can be even worse!

Sarah B. Woods, Ph.D., who conducted the study, described her team as "stunned" to find out that sibling and parent-child conflict could have more negative health impact than marital discord. Woods, who is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, speculates this is because family-of-origin relationships have been developing from our earliest days — and, to be blunt, marriages can break up and partners move on, but most people perceive family relationships as being forever.

The September 2019 issue of Caring Right at Home offered suggestions for smoothing friction between seniors who need care and their adult children. In this issue, let's take a look at some practical ways siblings can work together to take care of the folks.

Hold a family meeting.

When a senior's needs change, it's time for a plan. Creating an effective plan begins by getting an accurate picture of your senior parent's situation and needs, and learning about help that is available. If your parent allows it, talk to their doctor and other professionals involved. Be sure that everyone is heard and everyone has an opportunity to participate. Include your parents if possible.

Create a written plan.

What tasks need to be done, and who will do them? This might include practical hands-on care, financial help, managing your parents' affairs, and whatever other tasks need doing. The goal is buy-in. It's best if all siblings and your parents agree to the plan, even if it wasn't their first choice or if they have some reservations. The responsibility of the plan should be shared by all. Once your plan is in place, put it in writing, and get follow-up conversations on everyone's calendar. If you can't meet in person, hold a conference call or video chat.

Set "old business" aside.

Most families have "issues" — old patterns of behavior, competing loyalties, insecurities, maybe even grudges. Often, as the years pass, siblings put historic family roles on the back burner, content to busy themselves with their own families, jobs and interests. Even when everyone is together, they can keep things relatively superficial if they want to.

But the emotions and increased intimacy families face as a parent's health declines can upset that delicate balance. How siblings can support Mom’s stroke recovery or Dad’s increasing memory loss might be the topic on the table — but the subtext can be that one son was the favorite … Mom and Dad paid for the daughter's wedding but wouldn't loan the son money for his startup … or one sibling has never forgiven another for a childhood transgression. As best you can, put all those squabbles aside. This isn't the time. It can help to print out an agenda and make sure everyone has a copy during the meeting.

Call in professionals.

If family dynamics continue to stand in the way of practical planning and it seems the family just can't work together, consider calling in a family therapist, clergyperson or an aging life care professional (geriatric care manager) to serve as a mediator and keep things on track. An objective professional can bring structure and perspective to the meeting, and everyone's likely to be on better behavior with a third party in the room. These professionals also can help you access services. For legal and financial matters, consult an elder law attorney or your parents' financial advisor.

Acknowledge the role of the primary caregiver.

In many families, one sibling has become the de facto elder care manager. Maybe this person lives closest to Mom and Dad, or maybe the others believe this sibling has more spare time, or is most competent at the care tasks. Yes, it's easy to let the sibling who's nearby continue to do all the work, but as your parents' needs increase, it's time to disrupt that inertia! Ask the caregiver sibling to create a list of the tasks they perform and the time and money they expend toward your parents' care. Encourage the caregiver to openly share the effect these duties have on their life. But even as you're delegating, remember that the on-the-scene caregiver likely has the most information and insight into what is needed.

Right at Home caregiver with client

Learn about senior support services.

Remember, your family doesn't have to do it all alone. By all accounts, family caregivers in America today are bearing a heavy burden. Yet sadly, many are unaware of the numerous services and resources our communities offer for seniors and caregivers.

Do your homework and create a list of places to call and people to talk to. If the goal is to keep your parent at home or living with a sibling, call your local area agency on aging to find out about support services. Learn about professional in-home care services that can supplement the care family provides — everything from personal care to housekeeping, transportation, meal preparation and memory care.

This is an important stage in the lifelong connection of brothers and sisters. How they handle the challenges of this time will influence their relationship, and even the relationship of the next generations, for years to come.

Planning for and providing care for an elderly loved one takes a lot of communication skills — a daunting task for many of us! You can find some great tips and tools in the RightConversationsSM resource, free to download on the Right at Home website.

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For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.