Here’s the truth about siblings and caregiving:
Caregivers and healthcare professionals know, “there’s always one.” In most families there is one sibling who shoulders most of the responsibility for caregiving. It doesn’t matter if you’re one of six or the only child. There’s always one.
Sometimes you become ‘the one’ because you are a natural leader or doer. Sometimes the role is yours because, admit it your bossy, and you don’t make lots of space for other siblings to help or have input. Sometimes your parents choose you and sometimes geography does. It doesn’t matter so much how you come to the role. What matters is how you handle it.
If you are ‘the one’ there are certain things you need to watch out for – besides burnout, of course. Beware these four traps: resentment, wishful thinking, indecision and indiscretion.
The four traps of caregiving with siblings
Resentment: It is easy to become resentful when you are ‘the one.’ “Where’s the help?” “Why is this on me?” “Why do they get a pass?” And of course, “This isn’t fair.” It’s not that your resentment isn’t justified – it very well could be. It’s just that negativity can eat you up. And when you are the caregiver, you need to take care of your self – mentally, physically, and emotionally.
When my parents were both hospitalized, I kept a spreadsheet of all the things I needed to do for them. There were 196 items on the list at one point. Plus I had my full-time job. Plus I had my kids. When one of my siblings would tell me they needed to take a break from our family crisis to buy groceries or do laundry it would make me crazy. I could feel the effect my resentment was having on me and I knew it was only going to make me sick or permanently damage relationships I wanted to preserve.
Unable at the time to seek the help of a professional therapist due to time and money constraints, I had to find a way to deal with my feelings. It was during my morning gratitude practice that I decided I’d rather be thankful that I was able to manage so much, than be resentful that I had to do so much. How lucky I was that I had the strength, stamina, resources and organizational skills to handle our family crisis. And who was I to expect everyone else would work the same way I did? We were all caring for our parents in our own best ways. This shift in how I thought about my responsibilities was huge for me. I was truly grateful for what I was able to do.
Wishful thinking: Even though I learned to be thankful for my role, my husband did not. “Why don’t you ask for help?” he’d say. “You have a family. Someone else needs to do that.” I understood where he was coming from, but I also knew he was practicing wishful thinking.
We all have different strengths and weaknesses. I am great at execution. I can manage logistics like nobody’s business. I have mad Google skills. Couple that with my assertiveness and I am often the best person to ask questions of oncologists, negotiate assisted living leases, lead meetings with the eldercare attorney. I do my research, prepare my questions, and ask for what I need.
I’m not so good when it comes to the emotional tasks or the soft skills. My sisters are much, much better in those areas than I am. So it would have been wishful thinking to ask them to take on some of my tasks and expect they would handle them the way I would. Better for me to ask them to step in where I wasn’t very good. “Hey can you call Mum? She needs someone to talk to.” Or, “Can you keep in touch with the relatives so I can deal with the doctors?”
Indecision: If you are ‘the one’ chances are you are, or will be, your parents’ power of attorney and healthcare proxy. If that is the case, you are in charge. Own it. It’s good practice to ask for input from your siblings, but know when to stop gathering opinions and take action. Your parents gave you the role because they trusted you. You need to trust yourself. If your siblings don’t like it, that is unfortunate. But, you are not caring for them.
One way to avoid indecision while also avoiding alienating family members is to take a high input low democracy approach. Get everyone’s’ feedback. Value it. Weigh it. And then make your best decision. Hopefully, your family will understand if your decision isn’t in line with their input. And if they don’t, just know you listened and acted to the best of your ability.
Indiscretion: As a caregiver, you will most likely spend plenty of time with your aging or ailing parent. And during those interactions you may be tired, stressed, and frustrated with your siblings. Don’t mention it! Find a friend, a spouse, an online support group to vent to. Do not unload on the person who requires care. They have enough to worry about and do not need the guilt, worry and stress that comes from knowing family rifts are forming.
About a week before my mother died, one of the last times she was awake, she took my hand, and said, “Promise me you will be good to your sisters.”
“Damnit, I was trying to avoid this moment,” I joked. “But of course I will Mum.” It was what she needed to hear.
And I meant it.
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