AGING PARENTS: Splitting Responsibilities with Siblings

by | Jul 20, 2022 | Extended Family, Life, Series | 12 comments

What if aging parents need help, but only one child lives near them?

This week I’ve been rerunning a series I did a few years ago about caring for aging parents. I originally started the conversation by accident, with a little bit of a rant on 3 things parents should do to make it easier for their children to care for them eventually. After the comments came in, I followed up with thoughts on how to draw boundaries about what you will and won’t do for your parents.

Today I want to talk about a different relationship: sibling relationships.

Even if your relationship with your parents is difficult, one day they may need care regardless. And what do you do if only one child lives near them–and your other siblings live far away?

I’d like to tell you a story about my grandparents.

My grandparents retired in their mid-60s in the early 1970s. At the time, one of my aunts was just married and getting set up in southern California. My mother and her other sister lived in Toronto. My grandparents decided to retire in Kelowna, which is in British Columbia, a four hour plane ride from Toronto (more, really, because it requires a stopover somewhere). That was their first mistake–moving far away from family.

They were fairly healthy, and my grandfather used to walk several miles a day. But out of the blue he had a massive stroke. My aunt in Toronto flew out immediately. She’s a doctor, and she could be the most help. She also had two little girls at the time–1 and 3. But my mother was a single mom to me, and I was 7. My mom couldn’t leave her job. My aunt Alison could.

Over the next few months they made arrangements to move my grandparents to Toronto. My grandfather was badly affected by the stroke; he was paralyzed on his left side, and his speech was difficult. He had spent his life as a choir director and voice teacher and he could no longer sing. (His speech eventually came back; his singing voice didn’t.) But my grandmother was still relatively fine. They moved into an assisted living apartment where she could care for him.

In 1980 the family faced a difficult decision. My cousin Danielle, who was 4 at the time, had severe asthma. The doctors advised my aunt and uncle to take her out of Toronto for her health. So they moved three hours out of the city, leaving my mom as the only child now near my grandparents.

Caring for Aging Parents

My cousins and me with my grandparents in 1990

Over the years as my grandmother’s health deteriorated too, they eventually had to go into a nursing home. My grandmother actually passed first. My grandfather lived another ten years, living 25 years after a massive stroke.

And in that last fifteen years or so of his life, my mother visited them every single Saturday (except when we were on vacation). Think about that: every single Saturday, she went to see her parents. And it wasn’t easy–it required a long subway ride and an even longer bus transfer. Toronto’s a big place!

Once parents are in a home, they need kids to visit them even more.

When kids visit, then the people at the home know that this person is watched, and so they get cared for better. And besides, the home may keep you alive, fed, and clean (barely). But they don’t ensure that you have things to do or that you aren’t bored out of your mind. For my grandfather, it was a constant struggle to find ways to read (it was hard with bad vision and only one hand to hold a book and turn pages), and to find things to listen to or figure out how to use a TV.

But my mom sometimes needed a break. And she couldn’t do everything. 

So here’s the arrangement she worked out with her siblings:

  • Mom visited every weekend and just took care of daily things.
  • Her physician sister who lived three hours away came in during the week to do all medical and dental appointments (which were frequent) because she had a more flexible work schedule
  • The sister who lived in California flew up for a week every year and took Grandpa on lots of errands and did all the special things that had been building up (like finding a new TV that he could operate).

That way my mom got a bit of a break. But since she lived closer, she did do the bulk of the care.

If you’re the sibling who lives further away, please help!

I watched my mom dedicate every weekend to her parents for years. It was a HUGE toll on her. The fact that her sisters helped made a big difference.

If you have aging parents and you have a sibling caring for them, please offer to help. If you have to give up a week of your vacation time, yes, that’s a sacrifice. But if your sibling is giving up weekends and evenings, they need a break, too.

Divide up finances fairly

Another issue is that the sibling who cares for mom and dad is typically out of pocket quite a bit. And they also often miss out on general fun things that most people get to do. The sacrifice is pretty immense.

So it’s important for siblings to talk now, rather than after the parent passes, about finances. Will the sibling who cares for the parents get more of the inheritance? Can the sibling use some of the parent’s income now to pay for expenses? Have those awkward conversations. And do be generous.

And maybe one sibling isn’t able to physically help very much, but they’re willing to pay for an aid to come in at times. That can be a help too.

What if you need help and your siblings won’t give it?

And here’s the hardest scenario: What if you were like my mom, but unlike my mother, your siblings didn’t want to help? And it truly is all on your shoulders?

Maybe there’s a house that needs to be cleaned out. Maybe your mom has been living with you but you can’t handle it anymore. Now what?

I know this is hard, but you can’t force a sibling to help.

Don’t commit to helping your parents to a certain degree, assuming that someone will pitch in. Only commit to what you can do, assuming that you get no help whatsoever. That’s hard, but it is reality.

I’ve known people to take a mom with Alzheimer’s into their home for a year, assuming a sibling will do the same thing a year later. But not all siblings are able to do that, especially with their own family situation. And some may decide it’s just too much of a disruption.

Sometimes siblings have really good reasons for not helping, too. I think of one of my friends who was severely abused by her mother growing up, and lived mostly in foster homes. She has no relationship with her mother today–but her older sister does. And her older sister is caring for the mother, and often wants help. This mother, however, injured my friend far more than she injured the older sister. For my friend’s psychological health, she needs to stay away. 

My mother-in-law would have loved to have helped her mother at the end of her life, but she lived 20 hours away, had four small boys, and couldn’t drive there. They visited when they could, but it was impossible to do more without moving (and there were no jobs back home).

Some siblings have more family or work responsibilities than others, and it’s very unusual that you’d be in a situation where each sibling will do the same amount with the parents. Usually one is more able. Instead of asking, “are we all helping mom and dad the same?”, a good question to ask is, “does one of us have a lot more free time than the others?” If one sibling isn’t helping, but they’re also working more than 40 hours a week while trying to care for toddlers, they may be doing all they can physically do.

Sometimes your siblings think your parents don’t need that much help.

There’s one other issue: sometimes siblings honestly don’t think parents need that much help. And sometimes the siblings are right. In my grandparents’ case, they did need help if they were to have a good quality of life. But as we discussed last week, sometimes parents are asking unreasonable things of their kids. If your siblings decide to draw boundaries, and say no, that is their prerogative. Maybe you feel too guilty to do that. But perhaps you should listen to your siblings, too.

Sometimes, as well, a sibling may think that the parents belong in a care facility rather than at home (or living with you). They may not be willing to help keep the parents in a house if they feel the time has come for the parents to go elsewhere. If you’re battling with guilt over forcing your parents to go into a home, you may take on a huge amount of responsibility. But if your siblings are standing firm, that is not their fault. They may have a point. If you can’t keep things together without your siblings’ help, but your siblings say they’ll only help under certain conditions, maybe you should sit down and listen to your siblings. They may be right.

Aging Parents Need Help

Okay, that’s a lot of different scenarios! I hope I covered most of them. But tell me what you think: do you find care for aging parents to be lopsided in your family? What do you do about it? 

Are you the sibling trying to get other siblings to draw some boundaries? Are you the sibling trying to get other siblings to do more? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Aging Parents Series

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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12 Comments

  1. Lolo

    What a fabulous series, Sheila. From raising children to healthy couple to helping with parents…you are doing such an important job for society.

    Reply
  2. Betsy

    Thanks for this! I’m one of 7 siblings, and the only one who lives close to our parents….besides my youngest sister with multiple disabilities. At this point mom and dad are still in good health, and able to care for themselves and baby sister, but we all know it won’t last forever. Recently we’ve had to have some conversations about the future, and it’s hard being in my position. I’m sharing your post with all of them!

    Reply
  3. Jo R

    So should only children follow the same suggestions as for having siblings who can’t or won’t help? Or does that situation require some of its own, different ideas?

    Some of this has to fall on the parents as well. If parents spend their early retirement years traveling and doing their own thing, when at least SOME of those trips and their time could be to visit their grown children and grandchildren, well, then a few years later when those grown children are hip-deep in older kids, having their own health struggles, etc., who can blame the adult children from letting their parents reap what they’ve sown? If parents have freedom to travel and yet never visit their grown children, well, that tells a certain kind of tale and will likely have its own consequences.

    I’m just not sure what the intersection and overlap of “honor your father and mother” and “reaping what you sow” is. Because if parents choose to mostly ignore their grown children in favor of focusing on themselves, or if the parents make it clear they’re not particularly interested in keeping up ties, then they’ve established a certain hands-off approach that they should expect to have future repercussions. The parents have set a boundary, after all, so is it fair or even right to expect grown children to instantly come to the rescue instead of respecting the parents’ long-held boundary?

    (We’ve moved short-term twice to care for soon-to-die parents; moved permanently for a long-term situation; and allowed one parent, who made it clear long ago that no relationship was desired, to continue that lack of relationship while in an end-of-life situation. That’s how we chose to honor that parent, by continuing to abide the parent’s decades-old boundary. Said parent did have a significant other, but I don’t think we would have done anything different if there were no SO in the picture. Our last surviving parent now lives with us, at the parent’s request with the parent moving across the country to where we live.)

    Reply
    • Nessie

      Jo R, you make a great point that you are honoring their imposed boundary of little contact. So many people conflate “honor your mother and father” with obeying them. Not the same thing.

      Reply
      • Jo R

        Thank you for your kind words, Nessie. ❤️

        Just to be clear, it was not an easy decision ***at all***, and I actually consulted our lawyer, as the issue involved end-of-life dementia requiring full-time care in a specialty facility, with no POA and no MPOA having ever been made. The SO was not considered a spouse despite their living together for more than two decades, because common-law marriage cannot be initiated in their state (though it will recognize common-law marriages made in other states. Who knew?). The SO was not legally a spouse and therefore not first choice as next of kin. That left me, an only child, as second choice for next of kin. And I decided, for multiple reasons, I had to decline stepping in to make decisions. My cousins, the only other surviving blood relatives, were, as niece and nephew, third choice on the state’s designated next-of-kin list and also declined, and why wouldn’t they? They also had been cut off. AFAIK, a court had to appoint the SO (or someone else) as guardian for matters of paying the facility, dealing with death, etc. I don’t even know if my parent has actually died, as throughout the whole situation, the SO apparently felt uncomfortable contacting me, despite my telling the care facility rep that I was ok with phone calls. And why not be uncomfortable? The SO didn’t even know I existed until my parent was put into the care facility and whole next-of-kin issue came up. 😳

        For years I held out hope of reconciliation, but it never happened. So essentially, I grieved my parent’s death at least a decade ago.

        TL; DR: Please, please, PLEASE, everybody, get this stuff sorted out while everyone involved can make decisions.

        Reply
  4. Nessie

    Thank you for pointing out that you cannot make someone do something. My SIL has NPD and she does everything she can to make life harder for others. We had to go no contact with her for our sanity.

    We live closer to their parents so we will shoulder more as needed, but my parents-in-law have planned pretty well: legally, for entering facilities, etc. Currently trying to help them understand that SIL and my hubs cannot be effective co-executors due to her enjoyment of messing people over. Therapist said when the time comes we can have a lawyer sign document stating we cannot at that time perform the duties of co-executor (because honestly, we couldn’t do it if it has to be done with her.) If in-laws change that, we will take on the burden willingly. If not, we will wash our hands of it.

    In the meantime, we visit them (an hour away) at least once/month average but they have great social lives currently, and humbly ask our help if needed with no unrealistic expectations. SIL expects them (mid-70s) to drive to them 5 hours away and babysit, drive 1 teen all over, etc., and refuses to visit them despite time for several cross-country holidays, many girls’ weekend plans, etc. It is impossible to fairly divide care roles when one party is a narcissist.

    Reply
  5. Boone

    You have that one sibling that does their duty sand takes care of mom with no help from the rest. Mom changes her will so that helpful child gets the lion’s share. Useless siblings contest the will claiming incompetence, undue influence and confidential relationship.
    This morning I sat through a two hour deposition with just that set of facts. I’m representing the good child and the estate.
    Be careful. Keep siblings in the loop even if they don’t deserve it. Make lots of notes concerning communications with siblings and the subject matter.

    Reply
    • Jo R

      Boone, you rock!

      But seriously, I love your stories about how you’re using the legal system to actually help those that should be helped.

      Thanks for your hard work. ❤️

      Reply
    • Wren

      Or do like my in-laws and insert a caveat which states: “Anyone contesting our wishes as set forth in this document shall receive instead of his or her alotted portion $1.00.”

      Reply
  6. faith

    My parents were relatively young, 60 and 62, last year when we got hit with a lot of tragedy. We all got Covid and my dad ended up in the hospital for a month and then died. While he was in the hospital my mom had a massive heart attack that put her in ICU on a heart pump and ventilator. My dad died while she was on the ventilator. My siblings and I had to tell her that he had died almost a month later and we were about to finally have his funeral.
    She was still in the hospital for another month and couldn’t go.
    Anyway my mom is a miracle and almost completely recovered except for the fact she had to have permanent defibrillator device put in near her heart.
    But my dad left her with nothing and she’s dependent on us now. His teachers retirement checks stopped after he died. My brother and his wife are living with her and me and my other brother live within 15 to 30 minutes of them.
    What I struggle with is that I’m the sibling with the most free time, but I filed disability due to breast cancer and dealing with chemo and trying to recover. Plus I still have small children. There’s things I see that are not being done that have to do with my dad’s death, but I feel really overwhelmed thinking about taking it on.
    But it’s looking like if I don’t help mom it won’t get done.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Faith, that’s so much grief! And so much to walk through, especially with your cancer. I’m so sorry. I wish there were easy answers.

      Reply
  7. Jacqueline

    I am one of three siblings and our mother lives with me for the last 7.5 years along with my 3 children and my husband. As expected I do the lion share of the care for mum as my brother and sister live 90 minutes away. Their lack of help has been so disappointing to say the least. It’s a fight every time just for them to care for mum while we go on holiday for a week or take a weekend break. This year we have decided to put mum in a care home for respite care so we can get a proper break. Unhelpful siblings do make the care of elderly parents so much harder.

    Reply

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