Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Why don’t my siblings agree on how to care for my parents?

I’d like to start out this blog by sharing one of my clients’ stories with you.

Meet the MacMasters

Joan and Eddie MacMaster* have three adult children: Michael, Joanne, and Gail. Michael lives about 15 minutes away from his parents and his sisters live in other provinces. Although still quite healthy, Joan and Eddie’s needs are increasing as they age. Michael stops in almost every day to check on them and provide what help he can. As his parents’ health and mobility is declining, Michael has taken on more and more responsibilities, including grocery shopping and helping with household maintenance. Lately, he has begun to feel that perhaps he should discuss retirement living with his parents. Their mobility issues are preventing them from socializing with friends as much as they would like, and daily household chores are becoming more and more difficult for his parents. He is noticing that “life tasks” are taking a lot more of their energy than they did in the past, and he can see that it is taking a toll on them.

Michael decided to talk to his sisters before discussing retirement living with his parents. He assumed they would all view the situation in a similar manner. To his surprise, Joanne objected strongly to even discussing the issue with their parents. She said that when she talked to them on the phone they were doing very well and always seemed upbeat and happy. She talked about the home as the “family home” and said she didn’t want their parents to leave that home. When Michael spoke with Gail, she was a little less adamant that their parents should stay in their current home. Michael did get the distinct impression, however, that Gail thought he was overreacting and that things were not nearly as bad for their parents as he described. She didn’t directly disagree with his assessment of their situation, but also was not notably supportive.

The “Trajectory of Acceptance”

The Macmaster family is quite typical in that all three siblings have different views of what their parents’ needs are and the best ways to meet those needs. Considering the “Trajectory of Acceptance,” it is important to realize that siblings and other family members may be on various points on this trajectory for different reasons, including differing information about the parents’ situation, as well as divergent perspectives, expectations, and goals. This can make it very challenging for working together in the best interest of aging parents. Despite not starting on the same page, there are things siblings can do to improve both their working relationships and how they come together to support their parents.

Trajectory of acceptance diagram


Getting on the same page

As a starting point, it is important to recognize it is normal to have these differences and not to increase the tension by assuming other family members are wrong, rather than assuming they may have solid reasons for holding their viewpoint. Instead, in the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” In the case of siblings, this means listening to try to understand each other’s perspectives and the reasons behind them. Remember: oftentimes parents share partial information with each child and portray their needs differently based on their relationships with each of them.

Second, it can be helpful to think in terms of “snapshot and movie.” The sibling who lives nearby and sees a parents on a regular basis often get the “movie” version of their parents’ lives. They see the good days and the not so good days. On the other hand, long-distance siblings get a “snapshot” view on phone calls and less frequent visits. Parents may be at their best on phone calls or on the special occasions of visits. This often leads to long-distance siblings getting a picture that is much more positive than the reality. Understanding this can help the long-distance siblings better appreciate the viewpoints of the siblings living closest.

Third, once all siblings agree that they may not be getting the same information based on where they live and their relationship with their parents, it is important that the sibling who is most involved find ways to keep the long-distance siblings better informed. This could include regular group phone calls or emails to describe the day-to-day needs of their parents, as well as the closest sibling’s involvement in helping their parents. This will help to create a more level playing field of information for discussing possible solutions to changing needs.

Finally, if siblings are still struggling to get to a shared understanding of their parents’ current needs, they may want to consider having a social worker or other gerontological professional assess the parents’ situation for a more unbiased viewpoint.

It may feel quite challenging to have conflicting views with our siblings. The good news is that it isn’t insurmountable. Taking the steps above can help siblings come together for more harmony and for better working relationships on behalf of their parents.

*Names have been changed for privacy