Help Aging Parents: When a Sibling Often Feels Like an Only Child

The Caregiving Sibling and Uninvolved/Less Involved Brothers and Sisters
Edited and continued from yesterday  

Years ago we thought one of our bachelor cousins was the only only child we knew–who had a sister. That was a joke of course. His sister is wonderful but he, with a keen sense of humor, made fun of his self-centered, independent streak and gave himself the title.

Those were our younger days. Thoughts of caregiving were far from our minds. In the end his sister was a superb caregiver and possibly considered herself an only child with a brother (we never discussed it). Fortunately her husband, a physician, was 100% supportive and involved.

I’ve mentioned before–several times–something a family counseling agency’s head of Services for the Elderly told me: The child who will become caregiver for her/his aging parents can be identified early on–when very young. “The other children aren’t so involved,” she said.

Thinking back, I remembered when my husband and I moved to NY something inside made me aware I would “be there” for my parents when the time came; but I think I’d always known that.

I’ve checked this out unofficially over the  years. More often than not, caregiving children confirm this “something inside”…knowing that when “push came to shove” they’d do whatever was necessary to help their parents age well. Does this negate commonly-held beliefs that children assume the caregiver role for other reasons?  (This sibling needs a life; guilt; it’s payback time–parents did for them; they like helping others etc. etc.) But then that’s a good subject for another post.

Francine Russo’s excellent book, They’re Your Parents Too, addresses the subject of non-involved siblings among other issues. My concern is how to get Fran’s book into the hands of these brothers and sisters. The caregiving sibling has a very full plate. Thoughts of diplomatically suggesting ways her/his brothers or sisters could provide help and/or relief may be overwhelming or may conjure up concerns about negative reactions. Status quo feels preferable.

I recently had dinner with an old friend. His wife, Mary, is one of five children. She has a good heart, really enjoys doing for others, and has a lucky husband in that regard (breakfast in bed anyone?). He’s also a husband who is fully involved with Mary’s caregiving activities.

Yet he doesn’t understand why Mary’s siblings (three sisters and one brother) don’t shoulder more of their dad’s caregiving responsibilities.  They do help in ways that are convenient for them. But they leave most of the responsibility to Mary. It’s a burden but she–and he– handle it.

Interestingly (to me) a discussion ensued about how Mary would like her close-living siblings to pitch in sometimes–on weekends–to invite their dad to dinner once in a while or take him out for a ride.  It’s not difficult to make dinner for 1 extra person. Mary does it every weekend. And a short ride for a change of scenery isn’t asking much. Since none of the siblings work outside the home how hard can it be?

Some gentle questioning led to Mary’s explaining that her sisters usually take their dad to his doctor appointments. And they do offer to do things for him when the mood strikes them…not often enough. For example, one sister asked if Mary would like her to take their Dad to a meeting of his men’s club. “I told her it was OK, I’d do it,” Mary said, explaining that she was “so used to doing it, it really didn’t make any difference.”

And that’s where the red flag goes up: Mary feels overburdened, but doesn’t let go when she’s offered help. Her reasoning: she’s used to doing it. My take: she should say something like “thank you, I’d really appreciate that” changing the unstated rules of the game (so to speak). By acknowledging appreciation, perhaps her sister will “get it”– realizing possibly for the first time–that Mary can use some help.

If we believe what the head of the Services for the Elderly said above: “the other children aren’t so involved,” we realize this goes way back. In addition, siblings aren’t mind-readers. Why shouldn’t they assume the caregiving sibling–if not complaining– is happy with the status quo? Regardless, when we change the way we play the game, the person we’re playing with makes changes too. While we think “sports” isn’t it also true in the game of life?

When caregivers can have some additional help, doesn’t it raise the spirit? doesn’t this enhance helping our parents age well? It needn’t take a village; one helpful sibling can make a big difference.

Related: 2015 an excellent article: Solving Sibling Squabbles Over a Parent’s Care 

2 thoughts on “Help Aging Parents: When a Sibling Often Feels Like an Only Child

  1. I’m the eldest of five– four girls and a boy– and our experience as a family during my parents’ decline and eventual passing (Mom is 2005, Dad in 2010) was apparently very unusual. I wrote a two-part post about our experience with our dad on my blog this week, at I’m going to follow your blog and post it on my blog roll because I think the situation you describe is probably more common than my family’s experience.
    Only one of us, our youngest sister, her husband and daughter lived in the same town as my parents; I lived two hours away by public transportation, and our other two sisters and brother were hundreds of miles away. Our sister in town and her family handled a lot of the day-to-day things and I handled financials, doctors’ appointments, and the like– but all of us together made all decisions by consensus, and at the end, everyone participated (even our siblings-in-law) in the hands-on caregiving that was necessary.
    We were very blessed.

    • It sounds like you all did it textbook perfect. What a good feeling that must be, plus how nice it must have been for your parents to see how well their grown children communicated and coordinated. I’ll check out your blog. Thanks for commenting.

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