Aging Parents and Conflict Resolution:
Sibling Rivalty

Caring for elderly parents inflames old sibling rivalries. It shouldn't surprise anyone that sensitive family dynamics can be one of the most challenging aspects of elder care decision making, given the tremendous financial, physical, and emotional demands involved. Some say the real work of families is recovery. In the volatile landscape of family systems, everything is exaggerated, both good and bad.

One of the predictable "bad" events in the drama of aging parents is sibling infighting. It can be triggered by anything, but it is mostly about money, power, and affection. Once provoked, it extracts an emotional toll on the entire system that resists recovery.

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Example: A daughter and her husband living in another state step in to help organize and manage her widowed mother's finances. The goal is financial sustainability. The plan seems to be working until other siblings, the "local ones" who live closeby intervene with their own advice and unspoken needs. Their mother is torn between competing children . In the end, she opts to relinquish control of her finances to the "local" siblings. Affection gives way to betrayal, and the siblings splinter.

But the story continues. The local siblings' victory is short lived. Financial stability quickly unwinds and an urgent plea goes out to the rejected daughter for advice and, of course, money. "Now what?" her husband asks letting her know he will support any decision she makes. Justice in families is tricky. The rejected daughter is understandably angry and wants justice. She refuses her siblings' request for more money, and for all practical purposes, becomes incommunicado with the rest of the family waiting to see what will happen.

Nothing. No calls, no apologies, silence. Their mother and the other siblings continue muddling along as the financial crisis deepens, and then things get suddenly worse. Their mother falls ill and is hospitalized. The rejected daughter hesitates but finally flies home. It is worse than she thought. No one has been managing the situation. Money, hygiene, and morale are all about to run out. The rejected daughter is angry all over again that the an even bigger mess is being dumped in her lap but she soldiers on.

Being right is easy, but not a strategy for healing families. The rejected daughter opts to step in, not alone and not without conditions, but she does step up. A geriatric case manager is hired, money is managed through a local trust company, and their mother is moved into an assisted living community. It isn't easy, and it isn't without confrontations, harsh words, and strict boundaries. But a fatal mess had been reversed.

Baby boomers with aging parents face myriad issues -- Inheritance. End-of-life decisions. Dividing assets. Senior housing. Dementia. This doesn't mean that family squabbles are inevitable.

So What Happens When People Have To Divvy Up The Work With Their Siblings?

Remember all of those movies about disastrous family get togethers for Christmas or Thanksgiving? Now, you're not dealing with who does the dishes, but who takes care of mom, whether to pull the plug and how to split up what is left. The possibilities for conflict are numerous and explosive. It's common for adult siblings and parents to revert to outdated roles in times of crisis. There's a huge re-emergence of sibling rivalry over parents because when we see that our parents' time is limited, all the unmet needs we've had resurface: to be loved, approved of, forgiven or finally be judged as important or as smart as your sister or brother.

The family that gets together now isn't the same family and it can't function the way it did. Your dad made the important decisions but maybe he's been dead for five years.

If your mom healed the disputes, maybe she's got dementia or she's too frail. And it's kind of irrelevant that you were the older sister because everybody's an adult now. But people do slip into automatic, especially when there's a crisis. Most of us enter this period of our lives unprepared for the difficult decisions and delicate negotiations that lie ahead.

Some Tips on Getting Through

  • Group Huddle Or Family Meeting: Try to get together and talk about things so everyone get input and feels involved. Even if one person does most of the work, consider the family responsibility.

  • Be There: Siblings should prop up the main caregiver. Call your sister or brother often and ask, 'How are you doing?' Be prepared to listen to them vent about how hard it is."

  • Know What You Want: Do you want a sibling to relieve you at some point? Do you want [whomever] can afford it to hire someone to come in and help you? Or do you actually want to be in charge of everything, but want your siblings to thank you?

  • Be Explicit: Once you figure out what you want, then ask very directly for what you want, as specifically as possible. Don't hint.

  • Avoid Talking When Angry: Dodge the "anger guilt gridlock" by speaking up before you're peeved. We all know no brother or sister ever gave in to a demand.

  • Money Talks: The sibling given financial authority should be e-mailing others with details such as medical bills, even when not prompted. Transparency can dissipate a lot of the mistrust.

  • Be Part Of The Solution. If you find yourself in conflict with another family member when caring for an elderly relative, take a step back and get some perspective. Consider your own role in the conflict, and ask yourself if you're acting out an old family role or resentment. It might help you to see a therapist for support and insight.

    Make sure that you're taking care of yourself by getting regular sleep, nutritious meals, and exercise. If you're the primary caregiver, you also need to have regular breaks to avoid burnout. These steps won't make the conflict disappear, but chances are they will help you manage and resolve it in a more honest and clear-headed way.

  • There Is Great Value In Using An Independent Third Party To Assist With Your Problem Solving Conversations. Even if your family doesn't have specific disagreements, you may want to tap outside expertise who can help you tap into options and resources that you may not be aware of. Many problems facing caregivers have no easy answers and the more information and resources you can bring to the issue the better.

    • Is there someone whose financial expertise your mom values?

    • Is there a family friend that has some similar circumstances to your mom?

    • Is there a minister or other professional that would assist you?

    If there is, engage that person to assist you. If there is not a person that you know to aid with this, arrange to meet with a financial planner or possibly a geriatric care manager.

  • Seek Mediation -- Especially If You Hit Trouble Spots. A mediator or facilitator can help you and your family resolve disagreements or manage particularly difficult care-giving dilemmas. It helps families to have an outside facilitator who can offer advice and support. An outsider can frequently help the family get past logjams which are inhibiting their progress. My clients report that family members tend to behave better when outsiders are present at family conferences.

    There are many options from mediators in private practice to community mediation services. Most locales have community mediation centers that offer free or low-cost mediation to those in need. To find one in your area, do an Internet search of the name of your city or town and "community" and "mediation." Unless you limit the search this way, you'll likely get a plethora of names of private mediators-many of them former lawyers-who specialize in everything from divorces to dog bites. If you live in a place without community mediation services, you'll just have to cull through the possibilities-and focus on those who offer family mediation services as opposed to the divorce varietal.

Families don't adapt easily - the structures are very deep and often unconscious . However this time of transition doesn't have to become a family battlefield. In fact, if managed well, the experience of caring for an older family member has the potential to bring you all closer as you help your parent through this final stage of life.

In researching this article I relied on the following sources:

The Globe and Mail

Powell's Books

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