3 Things Siblings Can Do to Care for a Parent

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., who specializes in helping families cope with serious and chronic medical illness.

The brothers and sisters who file into my office have tight-lipped, apprehensive looks. They’ve voluntarily chosen to meet with me for a caregiving consultation in order to find a way to better coordinate their efforts to help an aging parent. But they’re afraid of what might happen once we begin talking: Will old rivalries and resentments rear their heads? Will I judge them singly or collectively as bad children? Will the meeting inspire stronger caregiving or spark endless conflict?

I’ve seen the outcome of these types of sibling meetings hinge on three questions:

  1. What does it mean to be loyal? I assume that any sibling who comes to my office is steeped in family loyalty. It’s just that there are so many different conceptions of what it means to be loyal. Some adult children believe loyalty to parents lies in taking over their lives as they age. Others seem to believe that it is their duty to deny that a parent has any limitations in order to protect that parent’s dignity. Some siblings are loyal to the family as a whole while others limit loyalty to their spouse and kids. What I’ve seen work best is when siblings are willing to balance nuclear versus extended family needs and are committed to a process of negotiation among one another in which differences of perspectives and priorities are worked out.
  2. Does the old pecking order hold or are new power arrangements acceptable? As young children, sibs usually grew up in a political pecking-order in which the oldest had more decision-making power than the youngest. As adult children of aging parents, they often unconsciously revert to these old arrangements, even though that may not best reflect the capabilities of individual siblings now. I urge them to be cognizant of the old order but to consciously adopt a more egalitarian and fair arrangement now – the better to utilize everyone’s best talents.
  3. Can they think long- as well as short-term? Many sibs are great in an emergency, ready to drop everything for the good of a parent. But I’m interested in whether they are farsighted enough to know that a parent’s decline over time will place new and different demands upon them. I want them to be able to develop a coordinated plan to address current needs but also be willing to fine-tune that plan as needs evolve.

My hope is that – through engaging these questions – siblings’ apprehension can be turned to appreciation that they are engaged in a common righteous cause: Help Mom and Dad live as fully and safely as possible.

Barry J. Jacobs is a clinical psychologist, family therapist and the author of the book, The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers - Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent. You can read more about him here.