How siblings can work together to care for aging parents

For years, whenever I thought about the best way for siblings to handle the issues of older parents, I thought about my friend Toddi. She had two sisters with whom to share the load – one a doctor, one a lawyer, and she worked in finance. If there could be a more perfect distribution of skills (and therefore labor) I had never seen one. Whenever we discussed it, she acknowledged that it really could not have worked out better.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the exception rather than the norm. In many families one child shoulders most if not all of the responsibility. Often it’s the child who lives closest. And it tends to be daughters (sometimes daughters-in-law) more than sons. The resulting resentment can be damaging to relationships between siblings – relationships that are supposed to help sustain you when your parents are no longer around. So, what to do?

  1. Plan before you act. When it starts to become clear that your parent is going to need additional care, before you step up and take control (or offer to dive in) sit down with your siblings and make a list of the different things that need to be done. Think about how much time and how much money and what sort of skills it will take to deal with each item on the list. Then talk about how much time, how much money and what sort of skills each sibling has to contribute.
  2. Schedule a call/meeting. Making the list and ironing out the various line items is a tough thing to do in a flurry of back-and-forth emails. You’re best off if you can all be together in the same room to sort it out. But if that’s not possible, a conference call will do. Schedule once-a-month calls thereafter to talk about how it’s going and keep each other in the loop.
  3. Acknowledge what’s being done already. This is particularly important if you’re not the sibling taking on the brunt of the work. If you want to preserve your relationships with your siblings, it’s key to let them know you a) understand and b) appreciate what they’re doing. At the same time, you may be feeling that you’d like more information about what’s happening and how you can be a bigger part of the process. It’s okay to air that as well. And if you’re the one looking for such acknowledgment? Without getting too emotional, explain the facts of the job you’re doing and the changes you’ve had to make to your life as a result. Compassionate siblings will step up. Give them enough credit to believe that to this point they may not understand what’s been happening.
  4. Ask for what you need. If you want help – additional hands on deck, financial contributions, someone to come into town so that you can take a break, whatever – ask for it. But know going in what you want coming out and be very specific about what you’re asking for. Your siblings may have their own ideas about how they can best participate. Listen. Don’t react immediately. If you need time to think about how that will work, say you need time to process. And understand, just like your parent’s need for care changes from week to week and month to month, your relationships with your siblings can morph to meet it.
  5. Get help. Finally, if it’s clear that you’re not going to be able to work this out on your own, bring in help. A geriatric care manager, elder care mediator, or a good therapist can provide a sounding board to help you get to a scenario that’s livable for all.
Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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One Response to How siblings can work together to care for aging parents

  1. Sue says:

    I might add a step before number 1….Try to plan BEFORE action is necessary in order to prevent chaos and crisis. As a Geriatric Care Manager, I often get the calls from families in crisis. Though crises and healthcare events can never be predicted, having a basic knowledge of Mom’s doctors, health history, medications, hospital preferences, nursing home preferences, where her records are kept, etc. can help to minimize many difficult decisions when a crisis does occur. Try to do “what-if” planning ahead of time with Mom and siblings. It’s not always an easy conversation, but will ease potential conflicts. A Geriatric Care Manager can assist in this process of preparation and planning.

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