Helping aging parents make life’s tougher decisions is almost always hard. But there’s one scenario that can make it infinitely more difficult – when the siblings don’t get along.
Passions naturally run high when discussing issues such as leaving home, no longer driving or bringing in outside help. Combine that with brothers and sisters who disagree and may still be harboring hurt feelings from childhood and you can be sure flare-ups aren’t far behind.
As the American author Adele Faber wrote, “the sibling relationship contains enough emotional dynamite to set off rounds of daily explosions.”
If that describes your family dynamic and you’re faced with trying to negotiate solutions between dissenting siblings, here are a few of the more common stumbling blocks and suggestions so you can help your parents – and keep the detonations to a minimum.
1. Challenge: Don’t be surprised at the inherent volatility of the situation. Understand that the circumstances are loaded with emotion, sadness, and frustration. Adding even a little sibling friction can bring out the worst in the best of us.
Suggestion: Acknowledge that everyone brings unique strengths, points of view and coping skills to the table. Don’t force parents into the role of peacemakers and mediators with sibling arguments. If possible, agree to disagree but present a united front when with your parents.
2. Challenge: Be aware of the old family characters. Siblings push buttons that reactivate our roles in ways we thought we had let go of – the baby, the irresponsible one, the mediator, among others. Resist the urge to step back into your part or keep your family cast in theirs.
Suggestion: Recognize your brothers and sisters are now adults and have created lives of their own. If your younger brother doesn’t travel home as often as you think he should, maybe it’s financial and not because he was always selfish. Try to adopt the mindset that even if imperfectly, most of us really are doing the best we can.
3. Challenge: Disagreeing on the type of help your parents require. The limitations of aging are not always obvious. Parents can also be secretive or confide in one child while putting on a brave face for the youngest. You may not be seeing a clear picture of what kind of help is actually needed.
Suggestion: Have an open and honest discussion and entertain all options. Listen first to what your parents want and remember there are many solutions between living alone and in an assisted living facility. Compromise if possible. After making a decision, agree to revisit the issue in the future and try something else if needed.
4. Challenge: Distribute the division of labor as equitably as possible. It’s not uncommon for some siblings to feel that they’re carrying the heaviest load. This can often be true if they live in the same city as your parents and are called whenever help is necessary.
Suggestion: Be honest about what you can do but understand that it doesn’t let you off the hook for what needs to be done. If you can’t visit in person, could you pay for respite service to give your sibling a well-needed break? Take over tracking the finances? Discuss what each of you can contribute and then go from there to fill in any gaps.
When it comes to helping our parents, our best intentions can easily be lost when arguing with a sister that refuses to do her share. Reasons for dysfunction run wide but the truth is we can’t change anyone else or even fully understand them. The only way to alter the dynamics of a situation is to change our own behavior.
Excuse yourself if you see a blow-up coming. When harsh words are on the tip of your tongue, stop, step back and take a breath. The reality is that your sister may be doing all that she’s willing or able to do. That same reality may also mean the rest of you will have to pick up the slack. It’s unfair but wasting energy fighting losing battles isn’t worth it.
Everyone eventually gets through this difficult time, although not necessarily unscathed. Do the best you can to minimize the damage. Under stress, hurtful words and actions rise within easy reach, but they aren’t easily forgotten if used. If things do get out of hand and you regret your part, apologize and try to do better tomorrow.
Few families survive these situations without moments of frustration and some distress but the good news is that there is help. If you’re sinking, talking to a therapist or clergy with experience helps. Try online forums to connect with people facing your same challenges. And if you’re unable to help your parents because of a sibling standstill, hire a geriatric care manager or mediator to get things back on track.
Coming from the same family doesn’t mean we see the world the same, even the one we shared. We typically choose spouses and friends with complementary characteristics to our own personality but we don’t pick our brothers or sisters. They are thrust upon us as we are to them.
Sibling relationships can be volatile and sometimes under great stress, explosive. But unless they are truly toxic, you don’t want to lose your brothers or sisters – even if they got away with everything when you were kids. As my mother used to tell me, this is the time to be the bigger person.
Or at least don’t be the one who lights the dynamite.
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