What if aging parents need help, but only one child lives near them?

For the last two Fridays I’ve been talking about caring for aging parents. I started the conversation by accident, with a little bit of a rant on 3 things parents should do to make it easier for their children to care for them eventually. Then last week I followed up with thoughts on how to draw boundaries about what you will and won’t do for your parents.

Today I want to talk about a different relationship: sibling relationships.

Even if your relationship with your parents is difficult, one day they may need care regardless. And what do you do if only one child lives near them–and your other siblings live far away?

That was a big theme in the comments over the last few weeks–how do you  handle it when you’re the only one who lives close?

When Aging Parents Need Help: How do you negotiate with your siblings how to divide the work fairly, especially if only one lives close?

I’d just like to tell you a story about my grandparents.

My grandparents retired in their mid-60s in the early 1970s. At the time, one of my aunts was just married and getting set up in southern California. My mother and her other sister lived in Toronto. My grandparents decided to retire in Kelowna, which is in British Columbia, a four hour plane ride from Toronto (more, really, because it requires a stopover somewhere). That was their first mistake–moving far away from family. (I talked about that in the original post!)

They were fairly healthy, and my grandfather used to walk several miles a day. But out of the blue, in 1977, he had a massive stroke. My aunt in Toronto flew out immediately. She’s a doctor, and she could be the most help. She also had two little girls at the time–1 and 3. But my mother was a single mom to me, and I was 7. My mom couldn’t leave her job. My aunt Alison could.

Over the next few months they made arrangements to move my grandparents to Toronto. My grandfather was badly affected by the stroke; he was paralyzed on his left side, and his speech was difficult. He had spent his life as a choir director and voice teacher and he could no longer sing. (His speech eventually came back; his singing voice didn’t.) But my grandmother was still relatively fine. They moved into an assisted living apartment where she could care for him.

In 1980 the family faced a difficult decision. My cousin Danielle, who was 4 at the time, had severe asthma. The doctors advised my aunt and uncle to take her out of Toronto for her health. So they moved three hours out of the city, leaving my mom as the only child now near my grandparents.

Caring for Aging Parents

My cousins and me with my grandparents in 1990

Over the years as my grandmother’s health deteriorated too, they eventually had to go into a nursing home. My grandmother actually passed first, in 1993. My grandfather lived another ten years, living 25 years after a massive stroke.

And in that last fifteen years or so of his life, my mother visited them every single Saturday (except when we were on vacation). Think about that: every single Saturday, she went to see her parents. And it wasn’t easy–it required a long subway ride and an even longer bus transfer. Toronto’s a big place!

Once parents are in a home, they need kids to visit them even more.

When kids visit, then the people at the home know that this person is watched, and so they get cared for better. And besides, the home may keep you alive, fed, and clean (barely). But they don’t ensure that you have things to do or that you aren’t bored out of your mind. For my grandfather, it was a constant struggle to find ways to read (it was hard with bad vision and only one hand to hold a book and turn pages), and to find things to listen to or figure out how to use a TV.

But my mom sometimes needed a break. And she couldn’t do everything. 

So here’s the arrangement she worked out with her siblings:

  • Mom visited every weekend and just took care of daily things.
  • Her physician sister who lived three hours away came in during the week to do all medical and dental appointments (which were frequent) because she had a more flexible work schedule
  • The sister who lived in California flew up for a week every year and took Grandpa on lots of errands and did all the special things that had been building up (like finding a new TV that he could operate).

That way my mom got a bit of a break. But since she lived closer, she did do the bulk of the care.

At Grandpa’s 90th birthday in 1998.

If you’re the sibling who lives further away, please help!

I watched my mom dedicate every weekend to her parents for years. It was a HUGE toll on her. The fact that her sisters helped made a big difference.

If you have aging parents and you have a sibling caring for them, please offer to help. If you have to give up a week of your vacation time, yes, that’s a sacrifice. But if your sibling is giving up weekends and evenings, they need a break, too.

Divide up finances fairly

Another issue is that the sibling who cares for mom and dad is typically out of pocket quite a bit. And they also often miss out on general fun things that most people get to do. The sacrifice is pretty immense.

So it’s important for siblings to talk now, rather than after the parent passes, about finances. Will the sibling who cares for the parents get more of the inheritance? Can the sibling use some of the parent’s income now to pay for expenses? Have those awkward conversations. And do be generous.

What if you need help and your siblings won’t give it?

And here’s the hardest scenario: What if you were like my mom, but unlike my mother, your siblings didn’t want to help? And it truly is all on your shoulders?

Maybe there’s a house that needs to be cleaned out. Maybe your mom has been living with you but you can’t handle it anymore. Now what?

I know this is hard, but you can’t force a sibling to help.

Don’t commit to helping your parents to a certain degree, assuming that someone will pitch in. Only commit to what you can do, assuming that you get no help whatsoever. That’s hard, but it is reality.

I’ve known people to take a mom with Alzheimer’s into their home for a year, assuming a sibling will do the same thing a year later. But not all siblings are able to do that, especially with their own family situation. And some may decide it’s just too much of a disruption.

Sometimes siblings have really good reasons for not helping, too. I think of one of my friends who was severely abused by her mother growing up, and lived mostly in foster homes. She has no relationship with her mother today–but her older sister does. And her older sister is caring for the mother, and often wants help. This mother, however, injured my friend far more than she injured the older sister. For my friend’s psychological health, she needs to stay away. 

My mother-in-law would have loved to have helped her mother at the end of her life, but she lived 20 hours away, had four small boys, and couldn’t drive there. They visited when they could, but it was impossible to do more without moving (and there were no jobs back home).

Sometimes your siblings think your parents don’t need that much help.

There’s one other issue: sometimes siblings honestly don’t think parents need that much help. And sometimes the siblings are right. In my grandparents’ case, they did need help if they were to have a good quality of life. But as we discussed last week, sometimes parents are asking unreasonable things of their kids. If your siblings decide to draw boundaries, and say no, that is their prerogative. Maybe you feel too guilty to do that. But perhaps you should listen to your siblings, too.

Sometimes, as well, a sibling may think that the parents belong in a care facility rather than at home (or living with you). They may not be willing to help keep the parents in a house if they feel the time has come for the parents to go elsewhere. If you’re battling with guilt over forcing your parents to go into a home, you may take on a huge amount of responsibility. But if your siblings are standing firm, that is not their fault. They may have a point. If you can’t keep things together without your siblings’ help, but your siblings say they’ll only help under certain conditions, maybe you should sit down and listen to your siblings. They may be right.

Okay, that’s a lot of different scenarios! I hope I covered most of them. But tell me what you think: do you find care for aging parents to be lopsided in your family? What do you do about it? 

Are you the sibling trying to get other siblings to draw some boundaries? Are you the sibling trying to get other siblings to do more? Let’s talk in the comments!

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