Family caregiver. Chances are you spend a good deal of your life planning for the future. You plan your career path. You plan for retirement. But you may never have planned on becoming a family caregiver.
If you’re like many children of senior parents, you became a family caregiver in small increments, over the course of time. Maybe it began by providing transportation after Dad gave up the car keys or by making phone calls to the insurance company to straighten out a health claim. As time went on, those favors likely became more frequent and you found yourself providing more and more care until you realized you were spending a significant portion of your free time taking care of Mom and Dad—perhaps much more time than your siblings spent pitching in.
Few people become a family caregiver by sitting down with the whole family and creating a plan that covers the who, what, when, where and how of caregiving.
Unfortunately, this lack of planning can lead to family drama and sibling resentment. In discussions within the Caregiver Stress Facebook community, caregivers frequently express frustration over their inability to get other family members to help with Mom or Dad’s care. They often say they feel they became the primary family caregiver by default and now shoulder the burden alone.
Family Caregiver Drama
If you count yourself in that group—or if you want to avoid the sibling squabbles that can arise over family caregiving—take heart. It is possible, to a certain extent, to begin the caregiving conversation over again. These six tips can help you step back from any existing family drama over caregiving and create a plan to help you all move forward in harmony.
- Start planning well in advance, if possible
It is never too late (or too early) to start the conversation. Even if you are well into the caregiving journey, you can access planning aids to help you move forward with more help from your siblings.
The 50/50 Rule® program, developed by Home Instead Senior Care®, offers resources for developing senior care plans that involve all of the aging family member’s children. Try to have your first conversations on this subject when the eldest sibling turns 40 years old, and continue to talk about how to share the caregiving before your parent even needs it. This way, no one sibling will “back in to” the caregiving role without the support of other family members.
- Look at the big picture
For some families, the caregiving conversation begins with details: “I can’t possibly help take care of Mom because all of my kids are enrolled in extracurricular activities,” or “I live five hours away, and I’m not sacrificing my vacation time to fly in and take care of Dad.”
Instead of starting the caregiving conversation by diving into the details of everyone’s life, try taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. What types of support does your loved one need right now? What types of care will he or she require in the future? Once you have identified your loved one’s needs, then you can begin a conversation that gets into the details of which sibling can provide which types of support.
Siblings share an intimate personal history that sometimes includes baggage: hard feelings, old hurts. Try to set these emotions aside and deal matter-of-factly with your parent’s needs in the moment—and going forward. Keep the focus on achieving goals, not on your family dynamics. When you approach the topic of shared caregiving from a perspective of “here’s what Mom and Dad need, now how can we all provide it?”, the conversation may go more smoothly.
If you find it impossible to have these conversations without tempers flaring, consider hiring a mediator. These professionals can help bring everyone to a resolution without the hurt feelings that may accompany a do-it-yourself approach.
- Match caregiving tasks with each person’s talents and abilities
Your older brother may balk at helping with caregiving if he is expected to bathe and toilet your mother. Your petite younger sister may not be willing to wrestle Dad’s walker into the car in order to drive him to appointments. Instead of insisting each sibling provide the same types of care, try to match tasks with each person’s abilities and interests. Perhaps your sister who lives far away would be willing to pay Mom’s bills and deal with other financial issues. Or maybe your brother who lives nearby would be happy to take Dad to his doctor appointments. There are many ways to divvy up the caregiving pie.
- Accept that one person may always provide a disproportionate amount of care
You can’t force your siblings to help. That’s a simple truth. And even when you do get family members to commit to help with caregiving, you still may find you provide a disproportionate amount of that care. Try to come to terms with the fact that this is normal in most family caregiving situations. Acceptance may be easier in the long run than constantly feeling resentful.
If you feel undervalued for the amount of care you provide, try investigating ways to get paid for family caregiving. According to AARP, there are a number of methods that allow your parent to compensate you for the help you provide, including direct payment and tapping a long-term care insurance policy. Even if your loved one can’t afford to pay you much, sometimes receiving a token payment can help you feel valued.
- Take care of your own emotional needs
High stress, isolation and depression are real dangers of caregiving, especially if you add in family conflict over caregiving issues. Although it can be hard to find time for self-care, be sure to make your own needs a priority. Even five minutes alone in the fresh air, or half an hour with a good book, can help you feel refreshed and recharged. If possible, hire a professional caregiver occasionally so you can get some time to focus on yourself.