When Siblings Disagree: Watch for the Early Warnings!



I live in Virginia, my mother lived in Tennessee, a four-hour drive. After my father died, I had been going to see her once a month. She was deeply grieving his loss and my older brother had also died 5 days before my father. I was concerned about her, although on the surface she seemed to be managing on her own.

I have two younger brothers, both who lived several states away and were not visiting very often. While we talked frequently on the phone and I kept them up to date on how our mother was doing, they were not offering to come see her.

This article is about the early warning signs or red flags, that your caregiving journey is underway. It is also a story of how siblings can be a major interference in early interventions that can prevent a crisis. The key is for siblings to all be on the same page, something that does not come easily.

Early warning sign 1! You must drop everything to attend to a crisis and you are not close, but the closest.

One day I get a call from a neighbor friend of my mother that my she had fallen on some concrete steps going to get her hair done. The friend had taken her to the ER as she had scraped all the skin off her shins. Old people have very thin skin, so it was serious. I hopped in my car to go to Tennessee. She was at home by the time I got there and in decent spirits.

Early warning sign 2! Things are not as they seem, pay close attention. Siblings not so present in denial.

As I began taking care of things for her while I was there, I noticed a stack of bills unpaid, some plants I had bought for her the previous visit not watered, laundry piling up, old food in the fridge, and just a general sense of things not getting done. I was concerned and shared this with my brothers who said they were not worried, she seemed fine when they talked to her on the phone.

I began the conversation with my brothers about moving her closer to me in Virginia after having a conversation with her Dr. He told me she was sad and lonely and needed to be near family. That was it for me, she needed to move. They did not agree.

Early warning sign 3! You know more about your parent’s health and needs than your siblings.

One of my brothers had scheduled a visit to see her and right before that she landed in the hospital with a bad infection. He went anyway while she was still in the hospital and noticed the many things I had shared about the condition of her apartment and affairs. He also called me multiple times while there about her healthcare needs because he had no clue.

Dealing with adult siblings can often feel like a playground fight for control and who knows best when it comes to an aging parent. My youngest brother was convinced that a move would be bad for her, “All of her friends are there”, he said, “They’ll look after her.” My other brother was also not convinced.

The bottom line is that when your parents are aging, they are not the responsibility of their also aging friends. The process of moving her did not go smoothly with my brothers. They resisted and said she should move near them. Although, they did not undertake a search for a place.

Siblings that are not in agreement about the care of an aging parent become a hindrance and added stress to the primary caregiver. When responsibilities of managing finances and healthcare are split, that can also cause disagreements and tensions. Managing the healthcare of a parent when the other sibling manages the money creates longer time in decisions being made, payment issues with bills and necessities and conflict.

What I learned from this experience has taught me that preparing and planning for these events can circumvent some of the conflicts, disagreements and resentments that occur when siblings have different roles and inputs. These are my strategies for being proactive when your parent shows signs of aging that can indicate to you that your help is needed.

They are an adult, and if in good health and cognition, then becoming a partner in the decision-making process with them will preserve their dignity and independence. This is the time for a family conversation. Who will be primary caregiver? When and what will siblings do to help? How will the primary caregiver be compensated?

A move from a place where they have lived for many years will make them more dependent on you in many ways. This is a conversation to have with siblings about shared caregiving to give the primary caregiver a break. How often will they visit? How long will they stay? What will they do?

Siblings who are removed from the day to day of caring for an aging parent will often be in denial about the true condition of health, mental, and needs of both parent and caregiver. Having an agreement on their level of involvement and role will keep them aware of the aging process.

Planning for a move to assisted living or other arrangement ahead of a crisis is key in creating a smoother transition. Creating a Team of family and friends can make the move less stressful.

Having a family conversation about this before a crisis, provides the opportunity for differing opinions to be heard and settled. How will they be available when there is a health crisis? What input will they have if they are not knowledgeable of the parent’s baseline health? Who and how will critical decisions about their healthcare be made?

Reviewing with your parent(s) the POA and distribution of roles and responsibilities while they are in good health is a critical conversation. It should be reviewed periodically as things change. Not doing that will create problems, conflict, and resentment. Essential documents like DNR and Advanced Medical Directive should be shared with all siblings.

Many adult children are thrown into the role and don’t have the full support of siblings who are far away. Having a conversation about what that looks like and what they can offer is important.

My mother died in 2018 and my caregiving role is over. I have since become a Certified Caregiving Consultant/Coach and support caregivers from beginning to end.

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