Sibling rivalry is normal for little children. They all care about who is really mom or dad’s favorite and they seem to spend their young lives trying to achieve that title. I’m not sure it is something that children ever outgrow completely but once most siblings have children of their own they understand that parents rarely have favorites. Sibling rivalry tends to mellow as people mature. But when there is an aging parent in need of caregiving, that is when sibling rivalry can rear its ugly head again.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that only one child of the aging parent lives near the parent. In the United States, adult children tend to scatter because of job relocations, marriages, and economic circumstances. That can leave one adult child with the job of looking after senior parents. Taking mom to all of her doctors’ appointments, helping dad with chores and repairs around his home, and shopping for caregivers or nursing homes, can leave the local child exhausted and resentful of the siblings who don’t live nearby.
Children who do not live near their aging parents are not usually in a position to move near their parents. Jobs and family situations have to be taken into consideration. Giving up a life that one has built to move to mother’s town might be completely impractical. Yet that child feels guilty for being so far away. For the one who is handling all of the caregiving responsibilities it can seem that the faraway child is selfish even though the caregiver might acknowledge that relocating would be just as impractical for her if the situation were reversed. How can the rivalry be toned down?
For the primary caregiver sibling
1. Understand that it might not be easy for a long-distance sibling to visit often for financial or family reasons. You might be juggling your job and family to take care of mom but do you have to take off a week from your job and pay for airfare to do so?
2. If siblings live close enough to help, ask for help and be specific about it. Say, “I need eight hours on Sunday to catch up on my family, chores and errands. Please be here during that time.” Because you know mom best, make your sibling’s time with her as successful as possible. Leave lists, explain mom’s needs and preferences. Then step back and allow them to forge their own way of doing things. It does not have to be done in the same way you would handle everything.
3. If you have siblings that live close by and are able to help but completely unwilling, that just stinks and you have my deepest sympathies. Just keep telling yourself that you are making a huge difference in someone’s life. (And you probably are now officially the favorite child.)
For the non-primary caregiver sibling or long-distance sibling
1. Try to visit as often as you can to help your caregiver sibling. Take the time off, book the flight, and go see your parents when you can get away. Your aging parents won’t be around forever so fit them in to your schedule.
2. Thank your caregiver sibling often. It is a huge responsibility so let her know how much you appreciate her. Send restaurant gift cards to help with meals on a particularly hectic day. Send a gift card for a well deserved massage. Send a heartfelt thank note.
3. Help out electronically. Can you call the insurance companies about billing issues, do research online for nursing homes or caregivers in the area, participate in online forums that discuss your parent’s health and safety issues so you can understand what your caregiver sibling is facing?
4. When you visit, offer to give the caregiver sibling some time off. Follow suggested routines but it is okay to carve out your own routine with dad and do what works best for you and him together. If you want to share what works for you say, “I found that if I helped Dad get out of bed like this, it worked best for us. But that’s just us.” Then leave it at that. It’s not a competition and your sibling does what works best for them when you aren’t there.
Above all, remember your parents likely love all of you, and most parents would not want you to fight over their care. They didn’t like you to fight when you were little and they wouldn’t like you to fight now. It’s time for everyone to be on their best grown-up behavior for their parents’ sake.