Caring Currents

How to Get Siblings to Help Pay for a Parent's Care

Last updated: May 29, 2009

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Okay, it's time to tackle an especially hot topic: How do you get your siblings to help share the costs and work of caring for your parents? Usually what seems to happen is that one sibling, sometimes two, is identified as having the time and flexibility to do the bulk of the care. Sometimes this is because she (yes, it's usually a she) lives closer, sometimes because she's not working in order to run her own home and take care of her own family.

But as we all know, when responsibilities, financial or otherwise, aren't shared fairly, resentment and bitterness are the natural result. Here are some suggestions from users and others in the caregiving role for how they've dealt with this touchy topic.

1. Make a list of tasks that need to be done. This should include absolutely everything required to keep your parent living safely. In addition to day-to-day tasks, it should include home maintenance, transportation, and other big issues. In addition, make sure you list those organizational tasks that can be so ridiculously stressful and time consuming, such as dealing with health insurance coverage issues, pension administrators, and the IRS.

2. Convene a family meeting, or schedule a conference call or series of calls. Remember those PTA and Rotary meetings when they'd read out a list of tasks and call for volunteers? This is going to be a lot like that. Driving -- who's going to do it? Cleaning out the gutters -- who's up for that? Then list each day of the week that your parent needs care, and decide who's in charge of that day. (And yes, this means every week. If one sibling takes Tuesdays and then can't come, it's his responsibility to trade days or find a replacement.) Make sure everyone's agreeing to something they can commit to on a long-term basis. A brother who works five days a week could take Saturdays, for example, and make sure mom has an outing to look forward to each week.

3. Designate specialized tasks to those best suited. If there's a family member who's good with numbers, let him or her handle the health insurance, banking, and tax responsibilities. This is often a good area to give to a sibling who lives further away, as it can be done long-distance. If there's a sibling who has contacts in the construction industry, he or she can call in favors and get remodeling and other tasks taken care of.

4. Be sure you've tapped all your parent's resources. Your parent may not have money in his monthly budget for care, but there may be other assets--a reverse mortgage, for example--to tap. If your parent is looking at assisted care facilities, many have financial advisors who can help determine if there are assets available that can be used to pay for care.

5. List the gaps in care, the cost of paid care, and make a financial plan. This part is both the simplest and the hardest. If Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are still up for grabs, and dad can't be alone, then you need a paid caregiver three days a week. Add up the hours and you have the amount you need per week. How much of that can your parent's budget cover? If mom can afford $160 a week for one day of care, then you and your sibs need to come up with the rest. Or find a way to be there more often.

6. Share the pain. When paying for care, "fair" doesn't necessarily mean an even split. Chances are, a couple of family members with the most flexible schedules and the most free time are providing the bulk of the hands-on care. That leaves others who are getting off the hook time-wise, so it's reasonable to expect them to cough up the cash. And if one sibling is better off financially, it's reasonable to expect him to kick in more. Sadly, this may have to be spelled out clearly in a group discussion. Stories abound of siblings who are able to afford annual vacations to Hawaii yet sit in silence as other sibs try to figure out how to get mom the nursing care she needs.

7. Factor inheritance hopes into the decision process. Not to be crass, but it can help to be open about what you and your siblings are expecting in terms of future inheritance, and how your parent's financial choices today will affect what is likely to come to you. Formerly tight-fisted siblings have been known to suddenly discover they can contribute $200 a month when the alternative is selling the family home, so it won't be there to inherit.

8. Cast the family net widely. Several people told me that they've had more distant relatives such as uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, even second cousins chip in to help out with paid care. I heard a lovely story about a niece with fond memories of her aunt teaching her to play the piano who offered a monthly contribution. Ditto for around-the-house help; there might be a church friend or neighbor who remembers your mom fondly and would love to sit with her one day a week. Spread the word that you need gifts of time and money; there may be folks out there who'd like a chance to give back, but they can only do so if they're aware of a need.

This list is only the beginning -- families all over the country are coming up with creative ways to help aging family members continue to live as independently as possible. If you have a strategy to add, please share it. We could all use your help.