The only time Elissa took for herself while caring for her aging mother was when her mom went back to the hospital or was sent to a rehabilitation facility.
That’s hardly a break from the stress and anxiety of caring for an elderly parent.
The youngest of six children, Elissa moved back to Ohio to help her siblings care for their parents as they aged. They worked to care for their father first and then their mother as aging turned into ailment.
“I really underestimated the emotional strain that caregiving for my parents would put on my relationships with my siblings,’’ she says now.
Providing care for aging parents is complicated and stressful. It can put tension in every relationship, especially between siblings who often have decades of complex dynamics with each other – sibling rivalry doesn’t go away because a parent’s sick. Even in the most supportive families, there is baggage and differences of opinion. That’s normal.
Sibling rivalries can reappear. Wishes for parental approval and love, whether you realize it or not, may become an issue. And certainly, there will be disagreements about the kind of care, who will provide it and how much it will cost.
There is no single playbook when the tables turn and a child becomes a parent’s caregiver. But there are a few things you can do to help alleviate tension and disagreements as you navigate the emotional, physical and financial stressors to help get back to enjoying each other and your mom or dad – including respite care when caregiving becomes overwhelming.
Communication is key in all phases of caring for your parent.
Recognize and discuss how family dynamics play out with each other. Be honest with yourself and each other about the roles you all had as children and may continue to have as adults. Make sure to listen to the needs and concerns of your siblings. Be mindful of the language you use and steer clear of accusatory comments.
Plan family meetings monthly or weekly to keep up with important decisions. Let technology help with these. You can chat via video calling using various apps or Internet-based programs. Share all information with each other, including care plans, financial outlooks and other important information.
If these meetings become contentious, consider reaching out to a professional facilitator, friend or third-party to help mitigate and help keep these essential touch-base meetings positive and productive.
In addition to providing care for your loved one, a professional caregiver can enhance these communication sessions as a compassionate third party. Most will offer detailed notes and reports on care that can be of the utmost help if one or more sibling is in denial, either about your loved one’s condition or the amount of care that is required.
It is easy to revert to the roles you each had as children, even though you are now adults - the bully, the shy one, the overachiever. But you have all matured with age and working together for your aging parent is the most important goal to keep in mind.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that daughters default to becoming the primary family caregivers to aging parents; however, there is no reason brothers should expect their sisters will handle all of this alone. That’s an unfair expectation.
You don’t have to wait to be asked either. As an adult, you can raise your hand and offer help, especially if you see one or two siblings shouldering much of the work. Look for places where your unique talents or abilities can be applied.
Indeed, the roles each of you had as kids will resurface, despite your best intentions. These don’t always have to be negative.
Maybe the oldest is the natural leader and an organizational whiz. These skills can be of tremendous help now when attention to financial and medical detail can make a tremendous difference for your parent. Perhaps the middle brother was the aggressive one, whose modern-day tenacity is now needed to navigate insurance companies or the maze of medical information and decisions.
Maybe the youngest was the family clown who still, as an adult, cracks jokes. You most certainly will need humor in the weeks, months and maybe even years ahead.
Recognize that true equality will be as unrealistic just as it was when you were kids growing up together. One sister may live closer to your parent, another may have a more flexible job, while another may earn more and can contribute financially.
When caregiving gets to be too much on the family, it may be time to seek respite care to give you each a bit of breathing room.
Respite care provides short-term relief for family caregivers. It can be arranged for just hours a week or daily, to allow you to run your errands, manage your own family life or work.
Caregiving is demanding and taking a break is often good medicine for everyone. Such care is provided in residential facilities, adult day care centers or by professional caregivers. Depending on where you live, there may be programs or centers that cater to specific aging populations, including dementia and Alzheimer’s, offer food and transportation and have planned activities. Many overnight facilities also include medical staff.
Like many family caregivers, Elissa was raising two sons, working to make time for her marriage and carrying a demanding full-time job.
Taking breaks or asking for help often just didn’t seem like an option. But looking back, she says she wished she had.
“I wish I'd known to take more regular breaks from caregiving,’’ Elissa says. “It would have allowed me to focus on how much I loved my mom and needed to be her best advocate rather than just pushing through the stress and anxiety of the unending daily emotional, financial and physical stress.”
The reality is that respite offers family caregivers a life raft. Without it, family caregivers are sure to face dangerous bouts of burnout, which can hurt both the caregiver and the care recipient. Learn more about vital respite care by clicking here.
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