“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
So goes the oft-quoted opening sentence of Tolstoy’s classic Russian tragedy, Anna Karenina. Perhaps an oversimplification, but his words capture a basic truth that harmonious families often have common qualities, such as mutual respect and good communication skills. And families that fight find many ways to despise each other.
Especially when an aging parent needs care and siblings disagree over how to help, who is responsible, what care should cost and who’s paying, relationships can strain to the breaking point. Just because everyone is now an adult doesn’t mean that old family roles—the favorite, the decision-maker, the black sheep—disappear. For a family that struggles with power dynamics and listening to one another, the stress of watching Mom or Dad weaken can bring out the worst.
Triggers for disputes are many, but the big ones usually involve time, money and who’s in charge:
Who is going to care for Mom?
Often, this falls to the sibling who lives the closest. More often than not, even if several siblings live nearby, it falls to a daughter rather than a son, given social bias that caregiving is a woman’s responsibility. Problems arise when other siblings try to override whoever has taken on the mantle of primary caregiver. Sometimes those concerns are legitimate; maybe the sibling on the ground lacks capacity or good judgment. Other times, the faraway siblings may be butting in without taking any responsibility for their demands. Mom may complicate the picture by playing favorites. Or the primary caregiver may try to manipulate other siblings by playing the martyr.
Where should Dad live?
For some families, sending Dad to a nursing home is a violation of deeply held values about what children owe their parents. For others, the big issue is money. Keeping an ailing parent at home is an expensive proposition that can foster disputes over who is paying for what—especially if Dad’s savings can’t cover the expenses, or if an inheritance will be diminished in the process. The same goes for placement in assisted living or a nursing home. And the solution of moving Dad to live with one sibling or another involves a host of other issues—cost, accommodations, time constraints, competition with other family and/or work responsibilities, to name a few. Not to mention fighting over who gets him.
Whatever the argument, the ultimate question of a parent’s fate depends on whether Mom or Dad is competent to make decisions. If the answer is yes, but Mom leans on a favorite adult child (“Mom always liked you best!”) or rejects another, resentments fester. If the answer is maybe, siblings can get stuck arguing over Dad’s true intentions. And if the answer is no, more power struggles can arise over what to do if a parent’s desires were never clearly communicated and put into writing—and who should be designated to make those decisions.
How to Resolve Sibling Disputes
Bottom line: It’s complicated. What to do if sibling infighting is tearing the family apart—and eclipsing appropriate care for Mom or Dad? One solution is to bring in a certified mediator who specializes in elder care disputes. These professionals are trained to help your family resolve issues ranging from caregiver burnout to inheritance infighting. They focus on facilitating good communication, crafting thoughtful strategies and developing workable solutions for all parties involved.
Another option, if all are willing, is to work with a family therapist to deal with longstanding, destructive family dynamics that are impeding your ability to cooperate in your parent’s best interest.
Aging Life Care Managers® can also help your family to determine what your aging parent actually needs for services, appropriate living accommodations. access to qualified professional caregivers, resources for financial planning, how to assess the value of providing care, as well as guidance for resolving conflicts.
While it’s not always possible to mend all the ways that unhappy families are unhappy, when it comes to working through sibling conflicts over Mom or Dad’s care, an impartial, professional third party can help you take important steps toward mending relationships in order to reach the best decision with or for your parent. And that, of course, is what you all really want.
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care® manager. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.
For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.
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