Sibling Communication in Senior Care

Caregiving requires a lot of communication. You’ll have to establish clear lines of communication with your parent who needs care, with their doctors and other medical professionals, and with their home care aides.

But you’ll also have to establish good communication with the rest of your family unit – most importantly, your siblings and siblings-in-law. In the midst of making sure that our parent’s caregiver and all of the medical professionals in their life are on the same page as we are, communication lines with siblings are the ones we often forget to leave open.

Family Communication in Caregiving

Once you’ve had the difficult conversation with your parent about the kind of care they need, and how they want to spend the coming years of their life, you may also need to have a conversation with your siblings about the particulars of your parent’s care.

Perhaps you and your siblings live close to one another, and you all have a clear understanding of your parent’s wants and needs – but for most families this isn’t the case. According to data from 2011, in around 40% of Canadian and American families, one sibling is responsible for the majority of a parent’s care.

Appointing a primary caregiver, or a family spokesperson, is a good idea. This will allow one sibling to have the ability to make decisions in emergency situations. It will also guarantee that your family will stick to a care plan, since all decisions will be made in conversation with the primary care provider – this will eliminate both arguments and confusion.

In some families, deciding on a primary caregiver is easy: your older sister has always been close to mom, or your younger brother lives closest to dad, or you know that you’re the one with the most time and energy to devote to caring for your senior parent. In other families, the decision can be very difficult – perhaps you’re all busy with your children and worried about how you’ll care for yet another person, or perhaps you all want to be actively involved in your parent’s care and are reluctant to give the reins to someone else. Ask your siblings to think as logically as possible about the decision, and try to do so yourself. Remember that you will all be involved in mom or dad’s care, and that appointing a family spokesperson is a decision that should help simplify some of the complicated choices you’ll have to make as a group.

Being the Primary Care Provider or Coordinator

If you have taken on the responsibility of being your elderly parent’s primary caregiver or care coordinator, you are embracing a position that has both rewards and challenges. Primary caregivers can have positive experiences bonding with their parents and creating memories in the last years of mom or dad’s life, but primary caregivers also often feel overworked, under-appreciated, and stressed.

Use these steps to avoid some of these negative feelings, and to create open, honest, and supportive lines of communication with your siblings.

•    Ask for help. This might seem obvious, but it’s something many caregivers have trouble doing. If you’re feeling stretched too thin, tell your siblings and ask for their help. They may not always know to offer – they’re likely dealing with stressors in their own lives, and they might assume, if you don’t speak up, that you’re handling your parent’s care independently and don’t need their assistance.

•    Delegate. Assigning ‘chores’ can be a tricky situation within sibling relationships, as you all might be tempted to revert to your childhood dynamics. Nonetheless, this is a key responsibility of the primary caregiver. You will have to do a lot for your parent, and learning to delegate to your siblings will ease your workload. Ask your sister to take your father to his doctor’s appointments, or ask your brother to buy your mother’s groceries each week.

Remember, your siblings don’t have to be physically present in order for you to delegate. Ask your brother who lives in Europe to review your mom’s finances, or ask your sister who lives across the country to be the one to stay on hold with the insurance company.

•    Create a dialogue. As a primary caregiver, you might feel as though it’s your responsibility to make all the decisions. This can lead to excess stress, self-doubt, and even guilt if you feel as though the decisions you’re making for your parent are not the right choices. It can also lead to fights in families, if you end up making a decision one of your siblings strongly opposes. To avoid both guilt and arguments, keep the dialogue about your parent’s care open. If you believe your father needs his caregiver to start staying during the night, mention it to your siblings. If you have doubts about which long term care facility might be best for your mother, ask your siblings to visit them with you or to read up on each of the options for themselves. When you make decisions together, as a team, you’ll avoid conflict and feel supported in whatever choices you make.

Being a Non-Primary Care Provider

There are countless reasons why you might not take the leadership role in your parent’s care. Perhaps you have very young children, or a highly demanding job, or you live a great distance from your parent, or maybe one of your siblings simply has a closer relationship with your mother or father. No matter the reason, it’s important to remember that there are still crucial roles for you to fill in your parent’s care.

As a non-primary care provider for your parent, here are some ways you can help make sure your parent is comfortable, relieve some stress on your siblings, and create a cooperative and supportive family dynamic.

•    Finances. For a sibling who lives far away, or who is employed in a highly demanding field, one of the simplest options to contribute to a parent’s care is to pay for some of it. If your parent is living with your sibling, contribute to the budget for any renovations they might make in their home to create a safer environment for your parent. If your parent has a caregiver, lives in a long-term facility, or needs to move to a nursing home, have a discussion with your siblings about how you might help with those costs.

•    Respite. While financial support can be essential, offering respite to your caregiving sibling is perhaps the most important gesture you can make. After spending so much time and energy caring for your parent, your sibling also needs to care for him- or herself, and respite will allow them to do just that.

Providing respite can be as simple as taking your parent out for an afternoon, or inviting them to stay with you for a weekend. It might involve travelling to where your sibling and parent live in order to take over the caretaking duties for a period of time. If your circumstances make either of these options unfeasible, you can also provide your sibling with respite by hiring a caregiver for a few hours each week, so that your sibling can attend to other business or have time to relax.  

•    Engagement. Taking on an active role in decisions about your parent’s care is key. It’s likely that your primary caregiver sibling, in conjunction with your parent, will make the final decisions about care options, but you should always contribute to the discussion. Don’t leave your sibling to do all the research and calculations. Making decisions about a parent’s care can be extremely stressful, especially if your parent’s condition is deteriorating. Support your sibling in the decision-making process, and try to reach a consensus. This will allow you and all your siblings to feel confident and at peace with the decisions you make, rather than feeling doubtful or resentful of one another.  

Regardless of your role in your parent’s care, your involvement is important. If you communicate actively with your siblings, it will reduce stress for all of you and will guarantee that you can all feel assured that your parent is receiving the best care possible.