Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Involving your siblings in the caregiving of your parents

Are you the caregiver for your parents and are finding it frustrating that other family members aren’t doing more to help?

If so, I’m going to suggest you give up that role. No—I don’t mean stop providing care for your parents, I mean to stop being the caregiver. Instead, I encourage you to be the primary caregiver in a caregiving family. I promise this isn’t just a matter of semantics and actually has the potential to positively change your caregiving experience, improve your relationships with other family members and enhance your parent’s care. When you start referring to yourself as the primary caregiver in a caregiving family, it allows room for others to take a more active role in the caregiving, as well as serves as a reminder to you that caregiving is not a solo activity.

Examine why your siblings aren’t helping out

You may wonder why your siblings aren’t just doing more to help with your parent’s care. After all, you may think, “They are their parents, too!” The answer to why siblings don’t jump in to help with caregiving is usually multifaceted. One common reason is that they—like you—are living very busy lives and are having trouble keeping all the balls up in the air with their current responsibilities. If they aren’t fully aware that you are having trouble managing all of your own responsibilities, or don’t realize your parents need more help, they may not offer to do more or even inquire about what is needed.

In actuality, most people I’ve worked with will become more involved with caregiving and share more in the responsibilities when they are educated about the scope of the caregiving responsibilities, as well as asked to help with specific tasks.

Share the full picture with your family

It’s also important to realize that the primary caregiver typically has much more information about their parent’s care needs and changes in their parent’s health than does the rest of the family. Family members who visit occasionally only get a snapshot of what is happening with their parents. Depending on the day, this snapshot could inaccurately show that things are much better or much worse than typical. In contrast, the primary caregiver has more regular contact and sees what I call the “movie” of their parents’ lives. This points to the need to find ways to keep your siblings better informed so they will be more likely to help out.

One way to accomplish this is to set up a group email with your family and—as the primary caregiver—send frequent updates. A group text is also useful for more immediate information that needs to be conveyed. Another option is a wonderful website, Caring Bridge, that allows people to post updates, pictures, send messages, and coordinate help. Finding a way to communicate to the whole family can relieve you as the primary caregiver from having to talk to multiple people and sharing the same story over and over.

Have proactive discussions about everyone’s responsibilities

If at all possible, don’t wait until you are resentful and burning out to ask your siblings for help; instead, have proactive planning discussions. The earlier you have these conversations, the better. Be as clear as possible about what you are willing and able to do, and then make specific requests for help. People usually respond better to requests that are specific and time-limited. If you need help that is more ongoing, consider discussing a sibling taking on the specific responsibility. For example, if your parent needs help with bathing or meals, you could ask a sibling to either provide this care or arrange for this care.

If your siblings are long-distance, you can still include them in the discussions via Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, or FaceTime. These communication vehicles allow everyone to see each other, which can be very useful. There are definitely tasks that long-distance siblings can do to participate in the caregiving. For example, they may make regular phone calls to your parent to help keep them engaged, arrange for doctor visits, manage finances, or provide respite for the primary caregiver.

Getting your siblings involved may feel like an impossible task. Yet, many times, I have heard family members say, “I’m happy to take care of X, as I didn’t know you needed any help. You seemed to be managing everything so well.” Meanwhile the primary caregiver felt overwhelmed and burdened. Caregiving, like child-rearing, requires a village. Make sure that you aren’t trying to do the work of a village all by yourself!

Dr AmyAbout Dr. Amy D’Aprix

Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.