After moving out of state, a woman called her brother, who visits their mom daily.
“How’s my favorite cat Snowflake doing?” she asked. The brother hesitated, then said, “I’m so sorry, but your cat died.”
Hearing that, the sister almost died of shock herself. She yelled at her brother over the phone, “Couldn’t you think of a nicer way to tell me! You don’t just blurt out information like that. I loved that cat. You have to prepare a person.
“You could have told me that she got out of the house and is up on the roof. Then when I called the next day, you could have told me that Snowflake got hurt when she jumped off the roof but the vet was caring for her. Then when I called the third day, you could have said she had passed away. That way I would have been able to handle the news.”
The brother thought about it and apologized. “I will bear that in mind in the future.”
Wiping away her tears, the sister responded, “Well, OK. By the way, how’s Mom?”
Once again, the brother hesitated, then said, “She’s on the roof.”
In a perfect world, parents would age gracefully and just fade away into the sunset, never becoming “a burden on their children.” However, the harsh reality is that if your parent lives long enough, there will come a time when they will have more difficulty getting around as their vision and/or hearing fades.
And yet, aging parents are extremely reluctant to ask for help since it would mean losing some of their independence and privacy. Until a crisis happens. Then, in most families, one adult child assumes the primary role of arranging care because he or she lives nearby, has a close relationship with the parent, or simply is a take-charge person.
On average, the primary caregiver in the U.S. is a sister, age 50, who has been providing care for an 81+-year-old mother for more than three years. The sibling who is the primary family caregiver reports putting in nearly four times the hours of care as their brothers and sisters. In only 2% of U.S. families did the siblings split the caregiving responsibility equally. (Home Instead Senior Care Network)
“Senior caregiving can either bring families together or cause brother and sister conflict,” says sibling relationships expert Ingrid Connidis, Ph.D., from the University of Western Ontario. Forty-six percent of family caregivers in the U.S. said their relationships with their siblings have deteriorated because of unwillingness on the part of siblings to help.
“Say, Judd, are you saying that there’s only a 2% chance that my children will be brought closer together as a result of me requiring future care?” Yes.
“But I desire that my children stay close after I am gone.” Well, according to the experts, the chances of your children working together are greatly enhanced if you plan ahead, before your family is in the throes of caregiving.
Planning ahead means having a family meeting. It is important to remember that every caregiving plan must center on the wishes of the person receiving the care. A plan should never be made without the participation, knowledge, and consent of your loved one. A person with a cognitive impairment should participate as much as possible.
Caring for an aging parent can be too big of a job for one person. Trying to do everything yourself may lead to burnout and problems with your own physical and mental health. Siblings that live out of town or have limited schedules can pitch in behind the scenes with meal organizing, bill paying or financial assistance.
The computer whiz in the family could set up an electronic calendar for dinner delivery or chores. If there are grandchildren, consider including them in the caregiving plan. From keeping their grandparents company to mowing the lawn, kids of all ages can provide emotional and practical support if the situation is right.
It might be a good way for them to feel they are contributing, not to mention their help may teach them beneficial lessons in patience and caring from the experience. Involving the kids also reduces your struggle between caring for your parents or them since you are all working together.
It’s important to have a point person to keep the process going and make sure people understand what’s been decided. Expect that there may be conflicts and don’t be afraid to talk them out. Better now than in a time of crisis.
Every adult child should be aware that how well he or she works with his or her siblings during the caregiving years will shape their family relations forever after. Long after the parent has died, everyone distinctly remembers — and judges — how each sibling behaved. If brother and sister can’t stop resenting one another now, their odds of pulling together as loving family members later are slim.
On the one hand is the research about the effects of birth order on personality types and family dynamics: First-borns are said to be highly responsible and commanding leaders, while the youngest are supposedly milder and more deferential. As those types grow into caregiving adults, the first-borns often feel it’s their job to make decisions for an aging parent. They may also expect their younger brothers and sisters to fall in line behind them.
On the other hand, recent research has found that many an aging parent has a favorite child whom she wants to be her primary caregiver, often years before she actually needs caregiving. In two out of three cases, that favorite is the obliging youngest, not the bossy eldest. And a 2013 study by Cornell and Purdue Universities found that a parent is more likely to become depressed when his or her preference of primary caregiver is not honored.
You can see why these two forces are a recipe for caregiver conflict: Older siblings assert their prerogative to be a parent’s guide and comfort, while the youngest sibling claims she’s only trying to do what’s right for Mom. Everyone feels slighted, sometimes by the parent, and no one’s cooperating.
The reality is that relationships between parents and children have deep histories and some are healthier than others. The oldest sibling may take charge, yet the younger ones may be more in tune with what the parents want. Others may check out, triggering resentment among the willing siblings. As you sort through the responsibilities, tensions can run high.
It may help to have a neutral third party present, such as a counselor or faith leader. Regardless of your family dynamics, it’s best not to assume beforehand that all your siblings will agree on what should happen. Opening up the lines of communication early, before a crisis happens, can minimize some of the family tensions. Include your parents in on these discussions and let their wishes be your guide and the center of decision-making.
Expect to encounter resistance. Your mother might say, “I just don’t want to talk about it.” Sometimes parents are private by nature or one spouse might be protective of the other’s limitations. It’s also hard to admit they need help, especially from their own children — whom they taught to drive and balance a checkbook.
Be sensitive to the possible reasons behind their push-back — but don’t give up. It’s hard for your parents to discuss what they may see as being a burden on their children. If your first conversation doesn’t go well, try again. Start small, discussing just one aspect of your concerns.
To be continued….
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.