Problematic Siblings: How having a brother or sister can actually make it worse…

Oftentimes, “only children” will tell me that they wish they had a sibling to help them shoulder the burden of caring for an aging parent. I chuckle in my head at this naive assumption of teamwork and cooperation that “only children” can hold of siblings. Sure, some families do have strong sibling support systems that help one another and remain equally involved in caregiving duties—they communicate effectively; take turns attending important appointments with their parents, and make important decisions together. They are supportive, caring and involved. These families stand out in my mind as shining examples of how families can function as a loving team even in the most trying and difficult times. They are, however, not the norm, as most families rely on an imperfect sibling system to meet the needs of their aging parents. There are family dynamics, personality traits, and communication patterns that influence the family systems way before any health issues emerge; and those ways of being will commonly intensify with a new stressor like health issues or the increasing dependency of an aging adult.

We usually see one adult child play the primary caregiver role while the other sibling(s) handles one of the following roles:

1. The Finances-Only Sibling handles the bank accounts, bill paying, investing and all decisions having to do with finances. This is an important role and is often very helpful to the primary caregiver sibling as managing an aging parent’s finances can be complex and time-consuming. It can be problematic, though, when the sibling that holds the purse strings restricts access to healthcare services and refuses to authorize payments for vital services. When an older adult’s well-being and safety is at risk, the financial responsibilities may need to be removed from one sibling and given to another sibling or a professional either voluntarily or by force through the conservatorship process (and you can learn more about conservatorships on our website).

2. The Out-of-Town Sibling tries, she truly does, to stay involved and to be helpful to the primary caregiver. She calls, she texts, she sends cards, but she doesn’t help in the day-to-day activities of caring for an aging parent. She doesn’t see the decline of the parents and experience the infuriating intersection of the current medical world and the often-opposing needs of the aging parent firsthand. And then from time to time, she offers extremely unhelpful advice like, “Are you sure mom has dementia? Maybe it’s just low B-12 vitamins in her system,” or “There’s no way she’s ready for hospice. Did you really talk to the doctor?” or, my favorite, “How dare you move our mother into an assisted living community! She should be living with you.” Oh—and her twice a year visits to Atlanta to “give you a break” that result in an assault on almost every decision the primary caregiver has made and a critique on how “you let her get this way” when the Out-of-Town Sibling is shocked by the normal changes in the parent’s health and functioning.

3. The Disappearing Sibling, also known as the “Too-Busy-With-His-Own-Life” Sibling, may live close geographically but might as well live in Kansas. He is hard to reach by phone, can never attend important appointments, claims to want to be involved, and consistently has very compelling reasons why he cannot do more for his parents. His on-and-off involvement in his parents’ lives can leave the primary caregiver emotionally exhausted, as she never knows how much to tell him or involve him in but is constantly trying to both take care of everything and keep the Disappearing Sibling involved.

4. The Abusive Sibling takes advantage of mom and dad, has been known to offer to care for them and then leave them neglected, and has stolen money from his parents either covertly or violently. This sibling has been reported to the police and to Adult Protective Services, but he still reappears sporadically to get more from his parents.

5. The Parasitic Sibling lives off of mom and dad’s money (and sometimes in their home) but provides little support in return to his parents. The Parasitic Sibling is not as obviously harmful as the Abusive Sibling, but she can still create long-term disasters as mom and dad are often complicit in the terms of their relationship. We have seen aging parents forgo their own health needs because of their concern over their dependent non-disabled adult children’s well-being. This forsaking of their own needs in order to ensure that their grown children’s needs are met can have dire consequences.

Families are complex—they are made up of individuals who each have their own personalities, histories, and ways of coping. The demands of caregiving can bring out the worst (and sometimes the best) in families and in the individuals that make up those families. If you happen to be in the minority of families and have a cohesive, functioning sibling system, take a moment to send your brother(s)/sister(s) a text, thanking them for being a great sibling. If you are struggling with siblings that are not on the same page as you, know that you are not alone. Most families have less-than-ideal sibling systems and rely on one primary caregiver to meet the majority of their aging parents’ needs.

Somehow most families figure out how to make it work. And almost all families benefit from experienced, compassionate, professional guidance. Over the last 12 years, the team at Hurley Elder Care Law has worked with many different kinds of families who bring a variety of strengths and struggles to caring for aging parents. If you ever want to connect with one of our team members about your aging parents (and your not-so-helpful siblings), please reach out to us for a complimentary phone consultation at 404-843-0121 or send us an email at info@hurleyeclaw.com.