There’s a great deal of angst in the family caregiver world about siblings who don’t help out with the aging parents. Very often, it’s the person who lives closest to the parents who ends up being the primary caregiver. This is kind of a default thing because logistics would make it seem only, well, logical.
However, the adult child living closest to the parents may not be the one who is best suited emotionally, financially or practically, for the job. This person may be a single mother trying desperately to take care of children and provide them with a living by working two low paying jobs. Then she takes on the parents, as they live in the same town. She is, understandably, overwhelmed.
This is when she needs to turn to her siblings for whatever help they can give. If they can’t be present physically, they should help financially, or with bill paying and legal paperwork. They should do something, but often they don’t. Many times, it’s because they just don’t want to be bothered. They assume that the sibling that’s closest can handle it and they don’t have a clue about how much time is involved in the parent care process. And they really don’t care.
But sometimes – yes it happens – sometimes the caregiver martyr syndrome kicks in. Sometimes, the in-town caregiver doesn’t really give the out-of-town siblings a chance. We all know of couples who actually love complaining about the spouse. They’d be devastated if the spouse actually lived up to their expectations, as then there wouldn’t be anything to complain about. Well, this same thing can happen to caregivers. They have an ego investment in caring for the parent. They love the “Honey, one day you’ll have jewels in your crown” comments by the little church ladies. They love the sympathy they get from colleagues.
How to Involve Siblings in Caring for Elders
It’s sad, of course. But this is one more way that old sibling issues can rear up and make parent care an ugly family issue rather than a collaborative one. Caregivers, before bad-mouthing siblings, must honestly ask themselves (and perhaps another trusted person or even a counselor) if they have truly included the siblings. Have they asked for a family conference? Have they asked if the sibling can do something specific such as bill paying? Have they asked if someone can help Mom pay for an in-home caregiver a few hours a week so the primary caregiver can have a break?
There are some siblings who live away from parents and feel totally shut out. They get frantic about the situation but don’t know how to approach the caregiving sibling without that sibling feeling distrusted or threatened. Again, this generally goes back to issues from childhood. Perhaps the hands-on caregiver is still trying to get Mom’s approval, so she refuses to let her siblings contribute to the caregiving process. She wants to be the hero. And slowly, slowly she gets unconsciously sucked into the mire of complaining that siblings never help and she must do it all, and the ultimate martyr is born.
Be aware. Yes, in most cases I’ve heard about, the caregiver is well founded in complaining that his or her siblings have blown off the responsibility of aging parents and underestimated (greatly) the time spend and sacrifices made by the caregiver. They’d just as soon not know, as they want to keep living their own lives as they have always done. But there is another side to this story. If you are a primary caregiver and have siblings who are not in the loop, take a good look at yourself. Ask a trusted friend for advice. See if you have truly given your siblings a chance to be part of the team. If so, it’s their problem is they resent or ignore you. But if not, maybe it’s time to burn the martyr hat and get your siblings involved. Tell them specifically what help you need. Give them a chance to be part of the team. It could be that the whole family dynamic will start to change with that one small gesture and the caregiver and care receiver will benefit greatly from much needed help.
By Carol Bradley Bursack
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