4 Keys to Sibling Harmony When Caring for Parents
Few things test sibling relationships more than when the time comes to actively manage the lives of their aging parents. Irreparable damage to once-close relationships is too often the norm as brothers and sisters clash over what each believes to be best for mom and dad. The danger is only exacerbated by geographic reality, as in most cases not all siblings reside near their parents.
Yet this new family dynamic of becoming your parents’ decision maker need not result in fractured relationships! Done correctly, this new paradigm could bring already close siblings closer and even create a bridge to strengthen estranged relationships.
While there is no one-size-fits-all definitive roadmap for siblings to navigate that can guarantee family harmony, the following four steps can create the foundation for functional relationships as brothers and sisters take on the challenging roles of helping to manage their parents’ lives.
1) Create a Common Goal
The most common mistake siblings make when actively overseeing their parents is not taking the time to clearly articulate their objective. Or, they assume that everyone agrees that the goal is to act “in the best interest” of mom and dad without bothering to determine whether all agree on what “best interest” really means.
In most cases, when discussed openly, siblings can quickly agree on the objective. It could be as simple as enabling mom and dad to live safely in their home and maintain their current lifestyle.
In those cases where there is disagreement over the objective, it is far better to have that discussion early, when hopefully the parents can be part of the process rather than later when they no longer are able to weigh in. In other words, this process should begin prior to a catastrophic event after which the parents’ wishes cannot be solicited. It is nearly impossible to reconcile opposing objectives when each side’s position is based on the statement that “mom would have wanted….” Instead of hypothesizing, find out what your parents want prior to them becoming unable to tell you and make sure their perspective is a central part of the common goal. Parents, if your adult children have not initiated the conversation, you should do so now.
2) Divide and Conquer
There is an old management adage that says when everyone is in charge, nobody is in charge. While the superficially easy decision for siblings is to say everyone will share the work equally, the various responsibilities associated with elder care make the reality far less simple than that.
Let’s face it, in every family dynamic different people bring different things to the table. For the sake of your parents, responsibilities should be divided based upon who could best fill their needs for specific tasks. Start by identifying the tasks your parents need help with.
If financial management is one of the needs, the sibling with the most experience and aptitude in that area should be in charge of that component. This can be a tricky decision and the one who is selected for this role should set up a checks-and-balances system so the other siblings fully understand what is happening financially. Perhaps an annual or twice a year family meeting or conference call is a good forum for such a financial discussion.
If the family employs a caregiver, one sibling should be charged with the management and direction of that caregiver. At LeanOnWe, too often we hear from caregivers who receive contradictory directions from family members. Make a plan now to avoid such issues and avoid losing a great caregiver.
A third sibling could be in charge of overseeing medical care and treatment.
These are just a few examples of how to divvy up responsibilities, though of course, every family’s needs are different. That said, clearly delegating tasks and allowing the sibling in charge of each of those tasks to independently make daily decisions goes a long way to achieving the common goal to which everybody agreed in step one.
3) Respect Authority and Expertise
Directly related to “Divide and Conquer” is the need to respect the authority and expertise of siblings assigned to specific roles. If given the responsibility over certain matters to make decisions, that sibling must also have the authority to make decisions related to that area. Sometimes the other siblings will agree with those decisions, sometimes they will not. The critical measurement is not the decision itself, but rather the entire body of decisions the sibling makes in their defined area as it relates to the common goal.
This is not to suggest that once given authority to make decisions in a specific area that sibling now has carte blanche to do whatever he or she wants without comment from the others.
As an example, my brother is tasked with managing my mother’s finances. While I might be interested in knowing how much her cable bill is each month, it would be wildly counterproductive for me to insist to my brother that she change providers or service. It just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things as long as mom is happy with the television channels she gets.
On the other hand, if over the course of a few months, my mother’s monthly expenditures as a whole signficantly change, it would be certainly appropriate to engage my brother in a conversation regarding why that was the case. At that point, if I felt that he wasn’t managing her finances appropriately we could discuss and revisit.
Which brings us to the last step…
Aside from setting the common goal, creating a system for communication between siblings is the single biggest determining factor of whether relationships will be strengthened during this phase of life or weakened.
Again, there is no single “best” communication strategy. Whether it is semi-weekly, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, there should be a regular time in which the siblings can discuss progress towards the common goal, review whether the current division of responsibilities makes sense and share any and all information. It is truly remarkable what a regular communication schedule can achieve in terms of maintaining positive momentum and airing any potentially divisive issues that could arise.
Although these four steps are basic, they are not simple. The reality of becoming guardians for our parents creates a level of stress for all involved and each person reacts to that stress in a different manner (which in and of itself creates more stress). Yet, by following these guidelines, the stress can be mitigated and sibling relationships strengthened while simultaneously creating a support system for your parents that will meet their needs.
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