Relationships with siblings can be solid and fulfilling, yet when there are issues regarding aging parents, even the sweetest situations can turn strained or worse.
Hot-button issues are almost always around money (your parents’, caregiving expenses and who pays), family possessions, Mom and Dad’s independence and safety, living arrangements or medical decisions. You know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen….
Or not enough. Your brother and sister might be delighted to leave the caregiving to you. They might not do their fair share, live so far away that their presence is minimal, or lack the time, money or interest to contribute to your parents’ care. They may also passionately disagree with doctors, you or your parents.
Sometimes squabbling relates less to the present situation and more to the past. “You were always Mom’s favorite” or “a know-it-all.” “You’ve been selfish your whole life.” It can be hard to tease out issues from emotions.
Aging parents and bickering siblings have spawned an industry of elder mediators. These professionals help families make decisions in the parents’ best interest, trying to replace vitriol with reason and preserve sibling relationships.
For those at wit’s end or hoping to avert a blowout, elder mediation can be a way to involve a trained outsider. Rather than the see-you-in-court route where a judge is The Decider, with mediation, decisions are made by consensus. They’re confidential and nonbinding.
The price tag, often shared by siblings or paid for by the parents — typically $150 to $500 an hour for a few hours — is a fraction of what litigation can cost. Community mediation centers may charge a nominal fee. (No guarantee you’ll be locking fingers at the end and singing “Kumbaya,” of course.) Mediators typically talk to all family members individually, including the parents when it’s feasible.
Don’t want an elder mediator? There are strategies that work regardless. Most important, says Crystal Thorpe, a mediator trainer and cofounder at Elder Decisions in Norwood, Mass., is to “keep in mind the wishes of parents. Their primary goal is that their children don’t fight. You’ll want to make parents proud and honor those wishes.”
- What do my parents want? (This is why you need to have The Talk about their medical and other wishes when they’re still healthy.) Are their wishes realistic? For instance, if they have dementia, or are in a house with steep stairs, are they safe to live alone?
- If it makes sense, can you agree on what your parents want and if not, can you work out something that will satisfy them? That could be a paid caregiver, aging in place technology like a Medic Alert-type device or something to reassure the family that they’re okay.
- Plan a family meeting, preferably in person, but if impossible, on a conference call, to discuss caregiving — finances, responsibilities, logistics. Follow these up with regular discussions.
- What are your siblings’ strengths? If one is tech-savvy, can she set up a secure family website (or consider a site like lotsahelpinghands.com that is already up and running)? If one isn’t contributing time but can afford it, can she kick in some money for extra help?
- One sib will probably be the primary caregiver. Decide how the others can take the pressure off him. Visits to spell him and accompany Dad to the doctor? Pay for respite care? Pay the bills online? Research community resources? Be the liaison with health care providers?
- When siblings disagree, listen and ask them why they feel the way they do. Is their perspective valid?
- Remember that bad communication and ill will can sever family relationships after your parents are gone. Do you want that?
An excellent book on the topic is Francine Russo’s They’re Your Parents, Too!
A big oops: Last week I compiled a list of the top books for family caregivers. I forgot to mention Caring for Your Parents: The Complete Family Guide by Hugh Delehanty and Elinor Ginzler. It is an AARP book, it’s on my shelf with the others I recommended and — I’m not just saying this — it’s excellent. I even contributed a section on adult sibling relationships. You’d think I might have remembered!