Caring Currents

Reconciling With Siblings After a Fight Over Caregiving for a Parent

Last updated: Jun 11, 2009

Closing Arguments
Image by rmlowe used under the creative commons attribution license.

Some of the saddest caregiving stories concern brothers and sisters who come to loggerheads over some aspect of their parents' or another relative's care "“ and wind up saying ugly things, or not speaking, or worse. (By worse, I mean court feuds, permanent family exile, and even violence.)

Common reasons for family conflicts over caregiving include (in no particular order): Different standards for quality of care, how to proceed after a diagnosis, where the older person should live, who should have control of legal or financial affairs, who should pay for procedures or care, wills and other gnarly issues about how estates are or will be divided. Did I mention money?

"You never really know a family member until money is involved," a member recently, and memorably, observed in a discussion about siblings.

If a family estrangement, large or small, is gnawing at you, what can you do? Some ideas that have worked for others:

  • Start by asking yourself if you're really ready to forgive and forget.

There's little point re-opening lines of communication if your real motive is just to have at it again. Usually the person who wants to reconcile is genuinely saddened by the discord (but this is an important point to feel sure about).

  • Can you agree to disagree?

This is the corollary to the point above. You don't have to capitulate to the other person's point of view. Especially if you're the primary caregiver doing the hands-on work, your view deserves extra weight. But for there to be reconciliation, both parties are going to have to agree that some difference of opinion is okay.

Find a way to compromise, or bring in a mediator to help you smooth over those differences in a way that leaves everybody "“ including the person being care for "“ satisfied.

  • Try to ferret out the whys behind what happened.

A lot of adult sibling discord has its roots in our childhood relationships. A youngest sib isn't seen as capable of making tough decisions, the black sheep is automatically blamed for problems, and so on. It can be useful to figure out if some of that is still poisoning the waters today.

Another common snag: Miscommunication, or assuming rather than talking. Or asserting one's beliefs without being open to other points of view. Often families confer by e-mail exclusively; there's nothing like actual human conversation to work through challenges. If the person you're caring for isn't demented, invite and respect his/her opinion.

  • Recognize that every sibling has a different relationship with a parent.

And yours may not be the same as your sibling's. A refusal to recognize this elemental fact can cause a lot of anguish. Common scenario: Parent alters will to leave more money to the sibling with whom he or she lives the last years; other sibs freak and cry foul. Most parents do love all their children equally (even the black sheep) but feel and express this in different ways. Kvetching "Mom always liked you best" is not only irrelevant but juvenile.

  • Break bread together to patch it up.

Try mending fences in a neutral place (not either of your houses or your parent's, and not over the phone, where you can't read expressions "“ or use your own expressions to underscore the sincerity of your message). Ask your sibling out to eat: "I'd really like to clear the air; let me treat you to lunch." Or, "I feel like we haven't been getting along "“ can I explain how I'm feeling over pizza?"

  • If talking's tough, write it out.

Breaching a stony silence is tough. People who have a hard time confronting others over tough topics sometimes find it easier to pour out their hearts on paper. It's worth a try. Include a request to get together in person.

  • Ask an intermediary to help.

A neutral third sibling, a beloved aunt or uncle, a family friend "“ is there someone who knows you both who can defuse some of the tension by sitting down with you both? This third party doesn't necessarily have to mediate (or referee); their simple presence can bring the temperature down a few notches--or get you in the same room together in the first place.

  • Appeal to your parent's or grandparent's wishes.

Posing the what-would-Mom-want question can get a disagreement back on a productive course. Mom would want us to be civil. Mom would want us to help her. Mom would want us to make her last years more pleasant by showing her a united front.

  • But don't make reconciliation your life's work.

Sometimes, sad to say, the breach can be too wide, the personalities involved too unwilling to make amends. Relationships do fall apart over caregiving conflicts. It's okay to grieve if this is the case for you. But you also deserve to move on, rather than dwelling. Your time and emotional energy are at a premium as a caregiver. Maybe you'll try again at Christmas, or next year, or after your life phase as a sandwich-generation parent passes.

Meanwhile, try to not take criticisms and attacks about your caregiving choices personally. We're back to agreeing to disagree (even if the other party can't), for your sanity's sake.

  • Finally, recognize that family takes many forms.

If you're at a persistent stalemate with a sib, consider "replacing" him or her (or them). Look to dear friends, cousins, [fellow caregivers] ( , and others to fill in as your "family." They may not share your historic bonds or your DNA, but they can provide the kind of emotional support you need right now, like siblings without the rivalry.