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Primary Caregiver: How to Get Help From Your Siblings

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  3. Primary Caregiver: How to Get Help From Your Siblings


When siblings must figure out how to take care of a parent with declining health, it’s a chance for them to grow closer as they work toward the common goal of providing a safe and nurturing environment for their loved one. What often happens, though, is working through the details and day-to-day grind of caregiving revives old grudges and creates new resentments within a family.

It happens in most families that the responsibilities of caring for a declining parent falls mainly on one child. It could be because the rest of the siblings live far away, or that one has more free time and flexibility to take on the demands of caregiving. Or perhaps one sibling has simply stepped up to take on these responsibilities.

Although every situation is different, the result is often the same: The sibling who is the main caregiver feels like she is doing too much work, while her siblings are doing too little.

If you are the primary caregiver for one or both parents, how can you avoid these pitfalls with your siblings? What can you do to get them more involved in caring for a parent? (We’ll call that parent “Mom” in this article.)

Hold a Family Meeting

The best place to start is to have a meeting with all the siblings to discuss caregiving of the parent. If siblings are far away, it’s best to plan a meeting close to Mom so that everyone can get in a visit with her. However, there are other options. Perhaps the meeting can be at a midway meeting point, at a holiday function, or during a family vacation.

Come up with an agenda for the family meeting. As the main caregiver, this job is probably best for you, as you are most familiar with the issues. Email the agenda to your siblings ahead of the meeting to see if there is anything they would like to add. If you feel it necessary, ask a close family friend, a minister, a family therapist, or a geriatric care manager to moderate the meeting.

There will likely be many issues to discuss at this meeting. What level of care does Mom need? What are the options for care as her health continues to decline? Who will have power of attorney? Who will handle her money?

During the meeting, one of the siblings should take notes. This sibling should type up the notes after the meeting (agree on a deadline) and email them out to the rest of the siblings.

As the issues are discussed, create an action-item list. These items may include such things as “Research in-home care options” or “Talk to Mom’s lawyer” or “Find Mom’s bank statements.” Whatever the list includes, make sure these actions are divided up among your siblings fairly and that everyone gets a copy of the list.

During this meeting, let your siblings know what kind of help you need from them. Avoid accusations against people’s character or past actions. Be specific. Instead of just “I need more help!” say “I need someone to stay with Mom twice a week for three hours so I can get some errands done.” Or “I need someone to take Mom to doctor’s appointments when I’m at work.”

Consider having this meeting yearly or as situations change to keep all siblings involved in the parent’s care.

Dividing Up Duties

Too often primary caregivers are waiting for siblings to step up and offer help, then stew in resentment when this doesn’t happen.  So if you need help from your siblings, just ask. The worst that can happen is they say no.

Think of caregiving like a manager’s job, one where you delegate duties to other people to make your life easier and more productive. Can you ask your brother in Seattle to do some preliminary research on nursing homes in your area? In the age of internet and Google, he can do this as easily as you can. Make a list of all the possible caregiving tasks that you can delegate.

When you ask your siblings for help, again, be direct and specific, and avoid insults, guilt trips, sarcasm, and an angry tone. Although you might get the help you’re looking for with these tactics, the damage to family relationships can linger for years. And you are likely to make your siblings feel less agreeable to helping you.

So what can siblings do when they are living hundreds of miles away?

First, be realistic. Your brother living in Seattle, with a stressful full-time job and three kids, is not going to fly to Pittsburgh once a month to help out with Mom. That doesn’t mean he can’t help out at all though.

Think about your siblings’ strengths, knowledge, and abilities. Is your brother a lawyer? Perhaps he is the best one to review the nursing-home contract. Does he work in finance? He would be the natural choice to manage Mom’s money and bills.

Much of the help your siblings can provide is emotional. With just a phone call, they can be there for you when you are having a difficult day with Mom. And just as important, they can reach out to Mom from far away to provide some breaks in what can often be a lonely existence. Try to get your siblings to commit to calling Mom at least weekly. Stress that the call doesn’t have to be long. Sending letters, cards, postcards, photos, flowers, small gifts, and drawings by the grandchildren can also do a lot to brighten an elderly person’s day.

Sometimes siblings are not far away—perhaps they are in the same town or the next one over. But the burden of caregiving has fallen on you anyway, and you’re feeling overwhelmed. How can you get these siblings, often busy with their own careers and kids, on board with helping you?

See if you can get nearby siblings to commit to scheduled visits or specific duties. For instance, can they do grocery shopping for Mom each week? Can they take Mom to get her hair cut? If they are an hour or two away, could they visit a couple of Sundays a month?

Whatever you decide with your siblings, make sure you put it in writing with an email or text so that everyone is on the same page.

Other Options

Sometimes your best efforts at getting your siblings to help are not going to generate a lot of change. Your brother is going to procrastinate on researching nursing homes. Your sister can’t visit Mom because she has to attend her daughter’s ballet recital.

It is okay to be angry and disappointed, and know that these feelings won’t disappear overnight. Focus on the situation at hand, which is the care of your parent. And focus on taking care of yourself. Do whatever it takes to find time in your schedule for exercise, family, and friends, date nights and other things that are important to you. Join a support group for caregivers, where you will find comfort in the company of people who are going through the same thing.

Look at ways to delegate in other areas of your life. If you have kids, can they do more chores around the house? How can your spouse help? Are there ways you can reduce the workload at your job? It’s easy to fall into the “martyr” trap, trying to do everything yourself instead of asking for help. It is okay,  even necessary, to put yourself first sometimes.

Extend your search for help beyond your immediate family. Are there uncles, aunts, cousins or family friends in the area that could help with Mom occasionally? Can you find volunteer help through local colleges, high schools, or churches or your county’s senior services office?

Think about hiring assistance if your budget (or Mom’s) allows. In-home care companies, such as Home Instead Senior Care, are a great help and can even be used to supplement nursing-home care.

Although you can’t change your siblings, you can shift your attitude about them. Instead of focusing on everything they are not doing, think about the things they have done. A simple “thank you” for any help given goes a long way toward easing tension. If you feel dragged down by the duties of caregiving and think that your siblings’ lives are much better than your own, remember that no one’s life is perfect. As well as you think you know your siblings, there are probably many issues in their lives that you are unaware of, from marital and financial problems to depression and addictions, and these could be playing some role in their lack of assistance. Also keep in mind that reluctance to help with parents can stem from unresolved childhood traumas. All of this may not make accepting a sibling’s indifference any easier, but it can be baby steps toward understanding and forgiveness.

Finally, make it a habit to look for the good in caregiving. Yes, it is a hard, hard job. But to be needed, to have a sense of purpose, to have a strong connection with a loved one…these are gifts to be treasured.

Next month’s blog will discuss caregiving from the point of view of siblings who are living far away from an aging parent—and how they can help.

Home Instead Senior Care of Montgomery County, MD
Holy Cross Caregiver Resource Center
Iona (services for the elderly in Washington, DC)
Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services Family Caregiver Program

Sign up for Home Instead Senior Care’s free monthly newsletters, Caring Connections, Senior Care Insights and Alzheimer’s Reflections, offering tips and advice for caregivers of elderly loved ones. (To find these signups, please scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, under “Looking for Advice?”)

More articles about caregiving and sibling relationships:

By Jill Renkey for Home Instead Senior Care

Since 1998, Home Instead Senior Care has provided companionship, meal preparation, laundry/light housekeeping, incidental transportation, medication reminders, and personal hygiene assistance to seniors in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Northwest Washington, DC. For more information, please call (301) 588-9710;


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