How do I help remedy a sibling conflict about our dad's care?

9 answers | Last updated: Mar 07, 2015
A fellow caregiver asked...

At a family meeting, one member was "beaten up" by four others. He left, despite his father's desire that he be the caregiver. He is very hurt. How do I help remedy this situation?

Expert Answers

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

It must be very stressful to be in a family where one member can be "beaten up" by others. Was this a unique event or has this been going on for years in one form or another? If so, is it always the same person who gets ganged up on, or does the victim change every time? Did you or your father or anyone else try to intercede on behalf of your brother, and if not, why not? As you can see, I have a lot of questions I'd like answers to in order to give you the most useful response. Let me try to be of help with the information you provided.

When families face disputes or difficult choices, most people would like to rely on good intentions and love to repair a bad situation. Unfortunately this approach often does not work because as much as they love each other, family members often have very different points of view. We are usually convinced that we're in the right, and that it is the other guy who is acting unloving and ungenerous. If I had the chance to interview everyone in your family who was at the meeting, I'd likely be assured by each one that he or she had the best of intentions, and that someone else was responsible for the mess. I might even hear a response like, "I didn't beat him up, I was just being honest. Isn't honesty a good thing?" Someone else would likely say, "If he's going to melt every time I raise my voice, there's no point talking to him."

As to potential solutions going forward, I think you first need to establish who wants to work with you and why. In any given conflict, you need to understand what others are trying to achieve. In general, people present solutions instead of talking about needs, which leaves families squabbling over who has the best solution, rather than trying to figure out how to best meet everyone's needs.

Perhaps you can speak to everyone individually and figure out what they want, and how much they are willing to compromise.  If it turns out that you are the only one who is motivated to change the situation, then you'll need to look at yourself and what role you play in the family. It might be a good idea to consult a family counselor to get insight into your family dynamics and perhaps serve as a facilitator for a family meeting. Good luck.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Your question struck a chord very close to my situation.  My older sister (the eldest sibling)  has lived with my parents for over 37 years.  During that time, she became an LPN, got her Master's degree in Philosophy and Religion, and has worked in hospitals, and taught at the university level.  She has benefitted from having free room and board, and my parents have benefitted from having a nurse on site to recognize and respond to medical emergencies that developed as they age. 

But as my father aged, any repairs to the house were not addressed until they became an emergency, and my sister lodged the "blame" at my father for not handling it, for not "sharing", "communicating", "hiding" information about "how things work".  My other siblings, who have moved away and figured out on their own "how things work", and have lived/managed on their own, are now all involved (yes, by long distance and on-site visits), and we are all amazed at the unrealistic and "hands-off" lifestyle that our sister has enjoyed for 37 years.  She is a co-administrator of our parents' estate, and we are working to address immediate concerns for our parents' well-being and survivorship issues, while we try to gently direct her attention to her own future when "all this ends".

And at times, it does appear to be a "beating up" of a family member, and this launches defensive strikes, sarcasm, regrouping, crying jags, efforts to create alliances within the family, etc.

When discussions tend to go off course, I try to recognize the past good my sister has contributed to our parents' lives, and bring the discussion to the present concern:  OUR PARENTS AND THEIR NEEDS.  I try to limit what my sister COULD/SHOULD help do in the future, while I address what HAS TO BE DONE NOW, by me and other family members, so that individual and group actions are focused and tasked by time and project goals.

It is extremely painful to see the current dynamics, when I remember the moments of laughter, fun, and support we have all provided each other throughout the years.  My younger brother and I live the farthest away, and are usually accused of "divorcing ourselves from the family", and coming in with "extreme" suggestions at the 11th hour.  Four out of five children have personal income assets/retirement plans in place (as our father did), and are more concerned with addressing the continued comfort of our parents in their home if medically possible, and expenses for the lifestyle of a survivor, and removing any obstacles to assuring them the secure environment they have earned.

None of us want to leave our sister "high and dry", but the facts are that 4 out of 5 of the siblings believe that any assets our parents have accumulated belong to our parents, and should be used to provide all additional care they need, from reverse mortgages, to sale of the house, when it is necessary.

Our sister feels very threatened, and yet has made no obvious plans for an exit strategy.  Instead she chooses to sharpshoot our suggestions and efforts, and communicate what "our parents wishes" are, so that the rest of us back off.  I know that change is difficult for everyone as we age, but change happens, and it doesn't have to be negative - it just has to be understood and communicated, and alternatives suggested and managed.

Where safety and cleanliness are concerned, "NO" is not an option.

I hope to restore my sister's focus on "her future" as my siblings and I work to meld our talents and opportunities to help our parents' transition.  It is difficult, and I have heard venomous responses that I never thought were possible from "my family".  The ultimate "good" has to be focused on our parents, and while that may incur hurt feelings, trauma and periodic nastiness, having the support and consensus of other siblings will make the required transitions happen. 

I hope that engaging my sister as a contributor, where possible, will help.  She doesn't return phone calls, nor will she talk to me when I call our parents.  I won't lock the door, I won't stop knocking, and I'm not walking away.

A fellow caregiver answered...

You could remind the beaten brother that the beating was not about him, it was about the gang's issues about themselves. He was just in the way when they reacted.  And that he isn't a punching bag and this kind of behavior can't happen again.  Take a stand against intolerable behavior.  The brother who is willing to be a caregiver deserves a medal.

Milestone answered...

These situations are crying out for "Elder Mediation." As a domestic mediator, I have seen wonderful things happen when a qualified mediator sits down with feuding siblings and aging parents, and facilitates productive conversation that results in better understanding of everyone's perspective. Ultimately, everyone has a voice, feels heard, and the outcome is an agreement on what is the best solution for the situation. Obviously, this is the nutshell version, but mediation really can bring families closer at this stressful time, rather than breaking it apart because of poor communication skills on the part of one or more family members. Most large cities have an "alternative dispute resolution center," or "conflict resolution center" - or call the nearest university and see if they have a department. Law schools will definitely have one. Call and ask if they can recommend a mediator with "elder" training. Good luck to all!

Cathrn answered...

My siblings waiting until I had taken care of my mom and rehalitated her from her stroke before 'my beat down'. They wouldn't quit either, got my father involved and he's been brainwashed into thinking I never really did anything for mom. I stayed there for years and never even let her walk without her arm in mine. I was too afraid she would fall as she had been. When she started getting ill again my family must have been ashamed but they sure never showed it, I wanted to come back and take care of her ,my family disagreed, and my husband and son didn't want me to have to go through the abuse all over again. They said "We just got done putting you back together again" but I haven't been. I'm still in pieces. And worse, I just got a letter from my dad accusing me of conspiring with his priest of whom I was good friends with :so his paranoia has taken over even when I'm not around, he accused me of killing my mom because she needed me and I wasn't there, though nobody told me. My dad wouldn't even let her talk to me on the phone, she could call sometimes after he went to sleep. But she usually fell asleep before him so those times were rare. Life is weird but keep listening to everyone else's experiences, I never in my life would have expected my sisters to turn on me, or my father. Nobody could have seen this coming. I had been my whole family's caregiver any time anything went wrong, I was always there for them, now this, it's unfathomable.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I have taken over the care of my grandfather as of July 2010. Since then I have been bashed with stories full of lies from family members whom are miserable in their own lives. At the time I took over my grandfather's care he looked like a run down home. Since my care I have nurtured, groom and gave him his dignity back. I have taken him on may road trips and given him the attention which he had lacked for years. Life for him now is more promising and worth living. My aunt has not once came and see him since I took over his care, yet she advise my mother what I should and shouldn't do with my grandfather. I know that as long as I care for my grandfather the bashing from the miserable family members will continue. I have learned to ignore it and just continue doing what I am doing which is look after the best interest of my grandfather. He will be 90 years old this year. I also don't get paid for caring for him.

Rios answered...

I've wondered lately how much of "caregiver stress" in it's most extreme forms is actually attributable to abuse heaped on by siblings. Some of these responses talk about lies being told about the caregiver (been there) and "beat downs" at family meetings (had my share) and point blank calling the treatment they have received from their siblings "abuse" (no doubt). Speaking from my own experience, I have been ambushed with wild and completely fabricated accusations that were later admitted to be based on hearsay although the punishment I received was never lifted. I have been gas lighted, ganged up on, swarmed even, special forces brother in-law threatened to rip my throat out (because of lies a hired caregiver was spreading - see below), lied to and about, subjected to classic "crazy making" behavior, called mentally ill, financially exploited, isolated by my siblings (because there was no one I could talk to about my problems that they wouldn't find out about)and on and on and on. They would never sit down with a care manager or hospice social worker or participate in a professional psychological analysis of the family dynamic which I offered to do after their accusations that I was mentally ill. Stressed? Absolutely. Stunned and shocked that their unwillingness to look at anything reasonably was unlimited? I still am. Here is one example: The same caregiver mentioned above, our first one, that I had been very concerned about i.e. her honesty, left our father in a hot car for an hour and a half while she was at a personal appointment. This was just one thing in a long list of very real and reasonable concerns I had about her. My brother wasn't concerned one bit and accused me of being difficult to get along with. That was how he handled it. And the next day in an e-mail, he said if I drove off the caregiver and did not leave my father's house, he would put him in a nursing home. So I left. It is still surreal to think about.
My point is that I believe my siblings behavior went far beyond simply seeing things differently. It will take years to recover financially and emotionally from their abuse. When does sibling conflict rise to the level of intentional infliction of emotional distress? Has anyone ever heard of a lawsuit by a caregiver against his or her siblings claiming such?

Emily m. answered...

Hi Rios, Thank you for your comment. I'm very sorry to hear about the situation you are in with your family, that sounds very difficult.

If you'd like you can start your own Ask & Answer page!

Take care, Emily | Community Manager

Sorry sib answered...

It is important to figure out how a primary caregiving family member living in the house with the parent gets fair treatment/asessment etc from 'social workers/care mamagers when one sibling.. a brother, tends to take over meetings and show his absentee adoration for our mom by inisisting that she get very expensive 24/7 care which has caused the principal of her financial supprot system to be tapped into, which would cause her to not have any money if she should happen to live beyond the date of the ending of that (knock wood, she is 93, but having a plan for her to live to 100 is not unreasonable since she has good genes and is in relatively good health etc.) ... ... it was supposed to be unlimited but that probably meant living within a reasonable budget to use the interests only for as long as possible... the same type of 'spying' and reporting by paid 'care-sellers' has caused problems and also the loyalty to the 'girls' by the company my brother hired and my sister who sympathizes with them and not with the problems they cause by their egos, poor personal habits, distraction and over-solicitiousness of our mother thereby limiting her abilities to do things for her self... so the question arises, how can the live in caregiver have clout with the supposedly objective evaluator and how can my mother be informed of the situation and help make the decision to reduce the number of hours the paid care sellers are here so that the budget can be brought back in line, of course, without denying her any of her needs and want? This is not actually an answer, is it? ANY HELP WOULD BE APPRECIATED.........