Addressing family conflict when caring for an ailing parent.

When faced with care for a frail relative, ideally we want to partner with our siblings for the best support. This does not always go smoothly due to family conflict. The care for an aging parent can put a strain on sibling relationships. I have heard client’s children tell me that they do not know if they will remain in contact with other family members after the parent passes, because the disagreements have been so dramatic. Some careful thought and planning can prevent or lessen this stress.

First, what are the underlying causes of conflict:

Siblings may disagree on the parent’s condition, and capabilities, one thinks mom is fine at home, the other feels she will be better off in an assisted living environment. There is often an uneven
distribution of time and care, with one child doing more that others. This can cause resentment, and guilt on both sides, and give differing points of view as to the care needs. Past family roles and
conflicts are triggered as siblings come in contact around the strain of an ailing parent. There could be concerns about finances, the cost of care, what will happen to the family home, or the parent’s savings. Finally, the changes that aging brings to parents, could cause feelings of sadness, anxiety, and concerns about the children’s own health and future.

How to resolve these conflicts:

There is often one family member who is the primary care giver, due to proximity or availability. This person is likely working hard to keep it together for the parent, but underneath could be experiencing worries, fears, sadness, and frustration due to the loss of health and independence of their parent. For this care giver, it is important for them to have support, so they are not isolated in the care, and therefore over burdened by it. It is important for them to become educated on the health problems of the parent so that they know what to expect. It is helpful if they are able to widen their circle of support by reaching out to friends, family, support groups, or professionals to talk to and ask for assistance so that they can remain as well as possible.

Family meetings:

Meeting with family caregivers are helpful to keep all informed on the health issues, and current care needs. Having regular family meetings, face to face, conference calls, or Skype, to keep all informed can avoid later misunderstandings. If tempers flair, consider meeting with a neutral party like a friend or family connection, or a professional, such as a mediator, counselor or geriatric care manager.

Keep the focus on what is best for your parent, and avoid discussing issues that take the conversation in different directions from their health and care. Communicate how you feel and then listen to your siblings. It is important for all to have a voice that is respected. You will all have strong feelings about your parent’s failing health, whether you are there everyday or not. If you listen to each other, it gives you the opportunity to learn how it is for your sibling. Don’t assume, ask and listen the to response.

Set clear boundaries:

Communicate with your family members, including your parent, what you are and are not able to do. Set clear boundaries, and discuss them, don’t assume others are aware of them. For example, when discussing care with many of my elder clients, they say that everything is fine, and they don’t need help other than their children. Meanwhile, the children are looking for help, because the care is increasing and becoming too much for them. In this case, they can honestly discuss this with the parent or siblings (if the parent is not able to understand) to be clear on what they can and cannot do. This is a conversation that can occur frequently as care needs change. Ask other family members how they are able to help when the care needs increase.

Plan around practical concerns. For example, an out of state sibling can manage the finances and insurance issues by working online and on the phone. If one sibling feels they can offer monetary
assistance, like paying someone to come and do lawn care and household repairs, than that might be a big stress relief for those who are doing this themselves. For the primary care giver, if they accept help from others, it gives them less to do, and allows long distance children to contribute and be a part of the care to the extent that they can.

When siblings get together, they often act out old roles. If this is occurring, try and talk about it, name it, claim responsibility for your part, in order to clear the air and move on. Bring your sense of humor, we all need to laugh, and this helps to relieve the tension. Be sure to care for yourself, by eating well, exercising, taking breaks / vacations, getting out and enjoying your hobbies, and getting support from your friends.

A few final words, You don’t have to come to every fight you’re invited to. If someone is pushing your buttons, you can walk away. Look at your own role in the conflict, and adjust your behavior, it is all you can do.