How to get your siblings to help take care of your aging parents
“A year and a half ago my mom suffered a stroke. As the nearest child—I live two hours away—I took a few weeks off work to help her recover and get resettled in a ground-floor apartment. (My boss was not happy.) The good news is Mom is doing well. Every couple of weeks I’ll drive over to spend the weekend. The bad news is that I have a kid brother and older sister who aside from a few attaboys are doing nothing to share the burden. My sister lives in California. As big sis, she loves to tell me what I should be doing, but won’t actually pitch in. My brother lives close enough, but he’s been mooching off our mother for years. Now that she isn’t her best, I’m afraid he’s looking for new angles to siphon off money. Meanwhile, I’m worried about my money. The time off work and numerous little expenses are killing my budget. Help!”
—G., Albany, N.Y.
Relationships between parent and child—and between siblings—can get magnified as a parent ages and needs help. The know-it-all big brother can turn into, well, a tyrant. That hapless kid sister can revert to her old slacker ways. No doubt about it: Eldercare can make for a messy family dynamic, no matter how functional your family may be.
The way I see it, siblings fall into at least four different types when it comes to caring for aging parents:
The Armchair Quarterback He’s got it all figured out: Which assisted living facility gets the best reviews, what to say to the doctor when a medication isn’t working, how to handle a Medicare claim. Is he willing to handle any of this stuff? Absolutely…after this board meeting and the twins’ birthday party and this half marathon he’s training for next summer.
The Sponge The tap that was turned on when she was a kid who “needed” a new computer is still flowing deep into adulthood. But now she’s expecting rent money, braces for her kids, a new wardrobe for work… Some kids—and parents—never grow out of the allowance mentality. And when parents don’t pay out, a Sponge sometimes looks for less honest ways to get what she thinks is hers. Sometimes the work of relatives with money troubles, financial scams that target the elderly are so commonplace and damaging that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the phenomenon a public health issue.
The Deadbeat This lovable slacker shows up on holidays bearing Mom’s favorite cookies—and while the rest of you set the table and cook dinner, he slips right onto the couch with a six-pack to watch football with Dad. To your parents, he can do no wrong. But when you call asking him to chip in on a new safety railing for mom and dad’s bathtub? Voicemail. He can’t deal, and he can’t seem to see how your parents’ well-being is his problem.
And then there’s you…
The Superhero Somewhere along the way—probably when you volunteered at the animal shelter in fourth grade—you became the helpful one. You’re highly effective, selfless, and can be counted on not to complain—until you just can’t take it anymore, the dam bursts, and you deliver a tipsy Thanksgiving toast your siblings will never forget.
Let’s not get to that point.
There’s been a lot written about the effects of aging on our financial lives, but these days more attention is being paid to you, the devoted caregiver. The timing couldn’t be better: Millennials and Gen Xers are getting old enough to start taking care of aging parents. In 2017, the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies published The Many Faces of Caregivers: A Close-Up Look at Caregiving and Its Impacts. One of the big effects it looked at: financial well-being.
First, a caregiver’s career can take a hit. You mentioned an unhappy boss. Well, TransAmerica found that two out of five respondents had strained relationships with an employer as a result of their caregiving activities. No surprise, because it can be a full-time job: More than a third of caregivers log 100 hours or more every month. Although most bosses understand your plight, an unsympathetic employer can add strain to an already stressful situation. A 2018 NIH study found that conflicts between caregiving and work are the biggest predictor of well-being among caregivers. You should know that the Family and Medical Leave Act requires certain businesses to give up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave each year—during which any health benefits you get through work stay in effect.
Caregiving can jeopardize your retirement savings, too. Outlay for things like meal delivery and home health aides, not to mention gas and tolls, can take a bite—just as you’re trying to stash away money for your own (possibly impending) retirement. Nearly a fifth of caregivers shell out $500 or more every month to take care of someone. Worse still? About the same percentage admit to taking out “a loan, hardship withdrawal and/or early withdrawal from their retirement accounts as a result of becoming a caregiver.”
The upside: Helping a parent in need, as I’m sure you know, is fulfilling work. You’re getting invaluable quality time with your mom, and this is your chance to repay her for all she did for you back in the day.
But you need help, and the sooner you enlist your siblings the better. Here are five ways to ease your burden and make sure your parent gets the care she deserves.
- Have a conversation. It might be that your siblings truly don’t get the scale of your (over)commitment. To show them, keep a care diary. In the week or two before talking, write down everything you do—and every expense you incur, including time off work. The key is to avoid telling your siblings what they aren’t doing, and instead tell them what you are doing. Next, ask which of those tasks and expenses they can manage. The subject may turn to the recipient all of this care. Some siblings, especially the Sponge or Deadbeat type or those at a distance, may seek to diminish the problem. (“You’re overreacting. Mom’s fine.”) Be prepared to offer evidence to the contrary. Ask her physician—as well as any physical therapists, health aides, or attendants—to spell out what your mom is capable of doing herself and what she isn’t. Document ordinary tasks that have been giving her trouble—from cooking to hygiene to getting around. And know that what you’re asking of your siblings is not out of the ordinary. Most caregivers get help from family members. One more thing: Pick a neutral time and place for your conversation—avoid the Thanksgiving dinner table at all costs.
- Hire an eldercare mediator. If talking gets you nowhere, the AARP suggests hiring a professional. Believe it or not, there are mediators trained for just such disagreements. (Some call themselves family mediators or adult family mediators.) Know that they don’t come cheap, but a little expense now might save you money—and hurt feelings—down the road.
- Get power of attorney. Many caregivers (43%) take care of their loved one’s finances, but more than half have not gotten power of attorney, which allows you to make financial decisions on someone else’s behalf. When a parent’s mental faculties are in question, this professionally drafted document can help you avoid future conflicts with your siblings—and make sure your mom isn’t taken advantage of. If she pushes back—and she might because finance is such a deeply personal matter—see my column on helping aging parents manage their money.
- Create an online care calendar. A friend set up one of these when she was leading the care for her dying husband—and it was invaluable. You can post tasks like picking up meds, delivering food, doing laundry, or transporting your parent to the weekly book club. Family and friends can simply sign up to help. Check out Lotsa Helping Hands or Meal Train.
- Make a “respite plan.” Burnout is a serious problem for family caregivers. Decide how many hours a week you need off to decompress and add this to your care calendar. I’m going to refer you to a great resource from AARP all about grabbing some well-deserved me time so you’re good and refreshed before putting on your eldercare cape again.
One last thing, at the risk of sounding like one of your siblings: Attaboy! You’re doing a great job.