How can I get my brother to help out more in caring for our mother?

6 answers | Last updated: Sep 28, 2013
A fellow caregiver asked...

As the oldest in the family, I've always been very responsible, while my younger brother has tended to stand back and let others do the heavy lifting. Now that my mother is ailing, I've been doing much more than my brother in terms of her care. We both live some distance away from her, but I handle her finances and recently helped her find and move into a senior care facility. My husband recently suggested that I step back and give my brother a chance to do his part. But what if he doesn't? Besides, I don't want to let my mother down.

Expert Answers

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

Family dynamics are often more powerful than we realize: it can be very hard to change patterns that are decades old. I suspect that passive communication with your brother will not work. If you step back to give your brother a chance to do more, he might not notice, even though to you the shift is dramatic. It's likely to be much more effective if you speak to him directly and try to negotiate a new understanding regarding your mother's needs.

Before you speak to your brother, develop clear goals for what you hope to accomplish. Is the burden of caring for your mother too much for you, or is it primarily an issue of fairness between you and your brother? Is the amount of time you spend with your mother creating problems in your marriage? Are there specific tasks that you'd like your brother to take over, or is there a way you can alternate responsibilities? If you come to the discussion with clear ideas about what isn't working and how the situation could be improved, you're more likely to get results.

Approach your brother in a non-accusatory way, if you can. Focus on the fact that you need help and stay away from issues of right and wrong, and good guys and bad guys. If your characterization of your brother is accurate, that is, that he tends to let others do most of the work, than you probably shouldn't expect a significant change in his behavior. Still, if you’re specific about how he can share your mother's care, he'll be more likely to rise to the occasion. If he can't spend more time with your mother, would he be willing to pay a housekeeper, for example, so you don't have to spend your weekends cleaning your mother's house? Try to play to his strengths. Is he good with finances, for example? If so, ask him to take over your mother's taxes. If it would help you (and your marriage) to have regular weekends free, propose a schedule for alternating visits.

You may be surprised by what comes out in the discussion with your brother. He may believe that you're both doing an equal share of the caregiving tasks, for example. Or it may turn out that he believes your mother always favored you, and he doesn't believe she wants his help. You may find it helpful to consult a family counselor or mediator if communicating with your brother is particularly difficult, or if doing so opens old family wounds. A counselor will help you gain perspective on your situation, and can offer practical advice for how to fairly divide caregiving tasks.

Addressing the situation has the potential to open up new avenues of communication and understanding, and bring your family closer. Even if the response from your brother is disappointing, you'll feel better for dealing with the situation, rather than suffering in silence and allowing your resentment to build.

Community Answers

3generations answered...

The professional answer is excellent. I would just like to add that even if nothing goes well in your attempt to get your brother's help, at least you will know that you tried. You should be prepared for the possibility that it may make things worse between you and your brother. I asked for help from my brothers (one older and one younger), and my request made things much worse among us. My parents live with me (and my husband and 3 kids), and both are so sick right now that I decided the best course is to just let it go and do what needs to be done. I want my parents to be surrounded by joy, not conflict. That may mean paying for help as they get worse; fortunately my husband is 100% loving and supporting of us doing whatever it takes for my parents. I hope you also have support like that from someone in your life.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I agree with both answers.

My brother is out of state and for a long time I was shocked and very angry about his lack of concern/care (in my view) about our parents' care. I did it all. He's married without children and didn't have a clue about what was involved with caregiving. He'd never had to do it for anyone and just didn't understand.

Well...his wife was diagnosed with pretty advanced cancer six months ago and suddenly he was doing things for his wife that I've been doing for years with my parents -- doctors' visits, getting groceries, doing the housework, worrying about her health. I could really detect a shift in his understanding of what my life has been like for the past eight years. So that has been a long time in coming, but I'm glad he now "gets it".

I did try what the first poster suggested, giving my brother specific things to do for my folks that he could handle from a distance. Or when he came to visit (every two years only over the weekend when he couldn't do docs visits or anything really helpful), I'd give him a few things to do at my folks' place. But he'd be so full of questions and ask for help so much with whatever I gave him, it was both funny and frustrating. He'd just basically give up and give the task back to me in the end. Or I'd spend so much time answering his questions that it would have been easier to do it myself. So if you do ask for specific help, be prepared that it may be comically unsuccessful.

I've come to understand that even though we grew up in the same household, our relationship with our parents isn't the same. I thought he'd have the same values about obligation and duty that I do, but he just doesn't.

I also learned that my anger was really only hurting me. He didn't feel it and it certainly wasn't hurting him. So I have learned to let that go. I do the best I can and feel good about what I do. He has to do what he feels is right and live with his actions.

The only daughter answered...

The only daughter- How true all of the above comments are. I tried years ago to sit down with both of my brothers and asked for their help. My oldest brother just came right out and said he would not let out mother disrupt his famlies lives. My youngest brother helped for about the first year until my mother and his wife got into a knock down drag out fight (remember my mother has Alzheimers). I kept track and and he had her 67 out of 365 days, but according to him he had her most of the time. He's forgetting all the times (most of the time)that he cancelled because they had other things planned (so what about my plans). So for the past 4 years I had her and all her affairs to deal with. In fact it took me 2 years to clean out her house and get it ready to put up for sale. I could only work on it when my husband was home to take care of my mom. He didn't want to get involved too much because he did not want to be accused of interfering with her affairs. But he was good enough to clean up after her bathroom accidents. I hear from my brothers sometimes about every 3 or 4 months and they always want me to call to let them know what is going on with mom. Forget that, I do not want to bother them because their lives are so busy that they can not take the time out for their mother. As for as selling her house, they came up a few times to get what they wanted and to help with the finishing touches on the house. Resentment, yes how can I not have resentment? They left me with everything. Because my kids were grown and out of my housse they felt that I had all the time in the world to take care of mom. They didn't want their kids to remember her this way. Excuse after excuse is all it came to. I would never wish this disease on my worst enemy, but some day karma will come around. They both don't think that anything they are (not) doing is wrong. I told them before that if they want to play fair that each of us would have her for 4 months out of the year. But, I guess life just isn't fair, because they both said no way. Now I have my husband to care for, he's been diagnosed with lung cancer(not a smoker). He has helped me so much wiht my mom, I don't know what I'm going to do without his help. Nursing home, nope, I just wont do it. She didn't put her babies out when they were young and needed medical help. I made a promise and until I can no longer do it, she will be with me. How can her own boys that she's helped out many times turn their backs and ignore what is going on. She's not dead yet. But according to them she may as well be.

Scarlet511 answered...

My 84 yo Mom has lived w/me for the past 10 years and she's been in good health (until recently). I'm 56, my brother who lives 1/2 hour away is 52. Mom just had an angiogram on Tuesday to determine the extent of the blockage in her legs (PAD) and I was on the phone w/my brother the whole day. Now it's 2 days later and he hasn't even called or come over. We might see him 6 times a year if we're lucky. I have a cousin who is an only child who takes excellent care of his mother who's 93 and in failing health. Both my cousin and brother are close, so I don't understand why my brother treats my mom like this...her b'day is next week. When Mom had her stroke (mild) over 10 years ago, I thought that might make him wake up, but it didn't. He is just so wrapped up in his own world and my sister-in-law is downright rude. Right now, I don't have a life because I don't have any privacy. My 2 kids are grown and I've been divorced for 20 years; dating is not my priority right now, but I know I need to get a life sometime and have time for myself.

You can't hit your brother over the head with a frying pan as much as you would like. I like the expert's reply, you can't lash out and call them names because years from now you're going to have to have a relationship (if possible). I'll do all I can for my mom because she's helped me so much throughout my's never easy. Maybe our siblings will some day crawl out of the hole and wake up to reality.

A fellow caregiver answered...

In defense of brothers, I am the only son, and I empathize with the last 2 replies. In my case, I have 2 older sisters who have refused to help at all with our Mom, and I have cared for her and had to live with her the last 8.5 years. As I write this my temporary health aide Friday morning texted last minute she wasn't coming in (not the first time) and the weekend lady did not arrive either so I have not been able to leave the house or even take a shower the entire weekend. I proposed to my sisters that we each had 1/3rd responsibility. They agreed but refused to help. I later proposed that they each take over for 2 weeks per year, so that I would care for her the other 48 weeks, and they ignored the request. One told me she would not come over even for 5 minutes, and this when my Mom had had back surgery and I told her I needed to get her pain meds at the pharmacy. Meanwhile, I've probably lost close to $1M in earnings because a) Mom gets up at all times of the night so I am sleep deprived like a zombie, and b) the health aides that are contracted to come over are totally unreliable and I have gone through many. So, without going into more detail and venting, just to let readers know the gender is not the determinant of the character traits of the person. Many people tell me that the daughters are the ones that usually help, but I have also heard of cases like mine where the son/sons sacrifice for the Mother. Unfortunately for her, given her progression and its effects on me, I'm nearing the end of my rope and she'll have to go to a nursing home soon. Breaks one's heart because more help would help delay/avoid this step.