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What To Do When Siblings Disagree on Care for Aging Parents

Family can be a source of great joy and fulfilling relationships packed with love and care. They can also be ripe with dysfunction, full of buried hurt feelings and anger. These hurt feelings and unresolved conflicts can quickly surface in times of stress. One of the most trying situations where this happens is when mom and dad are aging and their health starts to fail. It can start slow with just some help needed around the house. It gradually gets more time-intensive as they need assistance getting to doctor appointments and such. Then, maybe something happens, like a fall, and now the family needs to come together to plan for who is going to do what. The emotions felt by the adult children are hard enough without mixing in any resentments or long-standing disputes among siblings. How do adult children come together to support their aging parents without letting their differences get in the way?

Planning Ahead Is Ideal

The way it works in most families is that one adult child assumes most of the responsibility for ensuring mom or dad is well cared for while other siblings play a supporting role or no role at all. Any existing sibling rivalry can be rekindled because of the inherent power dynamics at play. Resentments can spill over, and disputes and misunderstandings are more likely to occur when, as is often the case, a plan of care has not been created. Whether done as a result of the primary adult child’s suggestion or upon the initiative of mom or dad, it is important to do as much planning and talking as possible about a parent’s future care needs before events force families into action. The more open, honest communication about what to do when mom or dad needs help, the better. Ideally, the parent initiates an advanced directive care plan in writing, so adult children or other responsible family members need only follow it to the best of their abilities. But that kind of foresight is the exception, not the rule.

If the parent doesn’t have a formal plan in place or hasn’t even verbally indicated their wishes in the event they need care, then an adult child should convene a family meeting. Working out the details ahead of time is the preferred way to go. If the parent can articulate their own care wishes, that should guide the process.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Deciding on in-home care or facility care is usually one of the first decisions. If the in-home care route is chosen, who will help? Will it be an adult child or other family member, friends, or professional home health aides who ensure the parent’s well-being? Perhaps it will be a combination of both. If a senior living facility is the preference, the level of care needed and costs will need to be explored, as well as which particular facility is the best fit for the situation.

Planning for the future also needs to be addressed. How will future medical, financial and care decisions be made? Reaching a consensus on any of these decisions may prove contentious if siblings cannot put their feelings aside for the good of the parent and the best outcome. All of this can be overwhelming, which is why experts say families might want to bring in outside help. Experts recommend that families consider using a third party if they cannot work things out among themselves.

Who Can Help?

Sometimes, a third party is the only way for family members to be able to agree on issues pertaining to care for their parents. This assistance can be from:

  • A Geriatric Care Manager (GCM) – Not every family can afford it, but hiring a GCM can help avoid many headaches. These elder care professionals are often social workers or nurses who specialize in assessing a senior’s needs and coordinating the care and resources necessary to help them maintain a high quality of life. GCMs do not actually provide hands-on care. Instead, they craft an appropriate care plan for a senior and coordinate its execution, whether by family members or hired elder care service providers. A GCM is an objective expert who doesn’t take sides but does what’s in the senior’s best interests, free of emotional attachments and triggers. Find a GCM near you through the Aging Life Care Association.
  • A Family Counselor – Family counseling provided by a family therapy practitioner, typically a psychologist, social worker or some other mental health professional, is an option. This objective third party can guide the conversation, keep it civil, and help families work through the challenges associated with caring for an elderly parent. It’s a forum where frustrations and concerns can get aired in a safe environment. If everyone can agree to find resolutions without winners or losers, then a happy medium everyone can live with is achievable.
  • Elder Care Mediation – A mediator specializes in resolving conflict and facilitating negotiations between disputing parties. The mediator does not tell the parties what to do or decide the solutions for them, but helps participants see things from a different point of view and reach their own negotiated agreements. It can help families avoid legal actions like lawsuits or guardianship petitions. You can find a mediator who specializes in elder care issues through your local court system, on Mediate.com, or on the Association for Conflict Resolution website.

Unfortunately, not every family will be able to put aside their disagreements and mistrust on their own without outside help. Ensuring that a parent is taken care of and has the support needed as they age is the priority, and these neutral third parties can help families ensure they address the issue from all angles.

Right at Home’s mission is “to improve the quality of life for those we serve.” As such, we offer a FREE RightConversationsTM Guide with tips and information for families on how to discuss and plan the care of an aging loved one. Our monthly Caring Right at Home e-newsletter also provides helpful advice for caregiving families.

If your senior loved one needs care, Right at Home’s professional, bonded/insured caregivers can assist with a variety of services, including meal planning and preparation, mobility assistance, hygiene, and other care. For more information, find the location nearest you to get a FREE in-home consultation.

Author Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is a veteran freelance journalist and author who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The Omaha native and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Follow his work at https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

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