Don’t Let Sibling Friction Worsen a Parent’s Health Issues

By Angela Pomeranz

When a senior adult experiences health problems, it can be a great blessing to them when their children are available to help. Help can be given in different ways: phone calls of encouragement and advice, going along on doctor appointments to help understand and remember information, helping more at the house, assisting with finances, or even providing hands-on care. Having more children usually equates to more help. However, when there’s disagreement among children about what’s best for the parent, more stress can be added to an already stressful situation.

If you’re part of a family with disagreeing siblings, there are some things that can be done to help things move in a positive direction. If you’re the designated health care representative, then you may be facing a further challenge in trying to be the final voice according to your parent’s wishes.

Whatever your role, before tackling the challenge of remaining a team with your siblings, you have to know what you’re battling.

Get educated about your parent’s condition. It’s hard to know how to advocate for care or disagree about care if you don’t know anything about it. The internet provides a wealth of information for just about everything. Get your information from reputable websites. (The top four health websites you can trust according to the Medical Library Association are Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov; The Cleveland Clinic Health Information Center, http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health; Familydoctor.org; and healthfinder, www.healthfinder.gov.) Talk to your parent’s doctor if possible. Learn what the latest treatments involve — the risks and benefits. Be open to what you’re learning. Listen to what your siblings are learning as well. Educate each other. Once you have a good grasp of the medical issues, you can then contribute along with your siblings toward the best care plan for your parent.

Then, if there is still conflict about the goal, you may want to consider if any of the following are making things difficult:

Emotions — Recognize that every person handles stress, grief and change in their own way. Your parent’s declining health likely stirs all types of emotions — good and bad. Your siblings also are faced with their emotions — good and bad. Is a sibling withdrawing or “checking out” emotionally? Is someone easily angered and lashing out? Are you smothering yourself in the details, trying to do everything while exhausting yourself? Such reactions can be misinterpreted and criticized, when, in fact, they may be perfectly normal for the situation or warning signs that emotions aren’t being managed well.

Unresolved conflict — It’s also good to remember that family history doesn’t go away. You and your sister may have never gotten along. Your brother may have never gotten along with your dad. Bad memories can’t be erased, only dealt with. A sibling who has never come to terms with a bad relationship with a parent or sibling will likely carry this relationship into the present. You may have bitterness brewing toward your siblings because you have “been there” for your parent from the beginning, and now you’re having a hard time letting go of some of the responsibilities. You may have a sibling with a dominant personality who wants to sweep in and take over, “like they always do.”

Commitment level — You may see the best way to care for your parent, but you need help from your sibling to make it work. You may not see them sharing in the responsibility as much as you think they should. There may be acceptable reasons: They may still work or have other life demands. Despite this, you see their availability from your own perspective, and they see clearly why they can’t help to the level you expect. Generally, there are varying levels of commitment when multiple siblings are involved.

What can help if you’re facing one or more of these roadblocks?

  • Be honest and open about your own feelings and how they may be impacting your participation in the issues.
  • Slow down and listen. You may need to hear and accept a painful reality. You may be able to help your siblings recognize such things in themselves. Some family members may benefit from a support group or counseling.
  • If you have been the primary caretaker and never asked for help, your siblings may assume you’re doing just fine. Share with them how you’re truly doing. Check into getting some respite care (temporary institutional care that provides relief for their usual caregiver — you — so that you can take a break).
  • If there are siblings who disconnect and you can’t count on them to help, you may need to rethink your goal.
  • If a sibling “resurfaces,” give them a chance. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Avoid getting pulled into old emotions. If you need to confront someone, do it when you’re calm. Stay focused on the goal. Avoid finger pointing or “attacking” from emotions.
  • If you’re not the final health care decision maker, make it your goal to keep relationships good with your siblings. If a decision has been made that you don’t agree with, you may have to concede, and doing that will be easier if the relationship with your sibling is your new goal.

And what if you’re that final voice as the health care representative?

  • Ask for input. Value everyone’s ideas and opinions. Let everyone have a meaningful say and try to use suggestions to the greatest extent possible.
  • Try to share responsibilities, even if you feel you can handle things on your own. A sibling may need to feel like he or she is contributing in tangible ways.
  • Use technology, and keep your siblings informed through group texts or emails. Share an Outlook calendar which has your parent’s doctor appointments on it.

In the end, be honest about your part in the conflict, communicate honestly with your siblings, and commit to making a plan work (even if it’s not exactly what you would prefer). These things will go a long way towards keeping a bright face to the blessing you are to your parent at a time when he or she needs you most.

About the author: Angela Pomeranz holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Kentucky. She has worked with seniors in long-term care for nine years. Prior to this, she worked extensively with children and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families. Advance planning for vulnerable individuals has been an essential consideration in supporting those she has served throughout her career.

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