Ending the Battle Between Brothers and Sisters Over Caregiving Duties

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • It would have been very easy for my relationship with my brother, Steve, to have been damaged during the two-year period that I was a caregiver for Mom. We had our moments when it was easy to fuss about his lack of involvement. Steve didn't often call the nursing home to talk to Mom. Instead, I often had to be the scheduler and arrange to call him from my cell phone when I was visiting Mom so they could converse. And when Steve forgot Mom's birthday one year, I angrily called him to complain that he couldn't even remember to send a card (even though Mom herself didn't remember her own birthday).

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    It turns out that sibling wars (especially between daughters and sons) are often sparked by caregiving for elderly parents. In "Dividing the Caregiving Duties, It's Daughters vs. Sons," New York Times writer Jane Gross describes the frustration that many daughters face when they feel that their brothers are not carrying their share of the caregiving burden. "Yes, there are daughters who ignore or abandon their aged parents, and there are sons, more of them every day, who prove to be devoted caregivers. But that is not the norm," Gross writes. "And even when the division of labor is closer to 50/50 than 90/10, the chores that fall to daughters and sons tend to be different. I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for my brother's labors filling out the Medicaid application and choosing the perfect motorized wheelchair for my mother. But I did all the yucky stuff."


    In my brother's and my case, there were five reasons why I feel our relationship didn't disintegrate. These were:

    • Steve already had proven his caregiving abilities. My brother was an adolescent when our grandmother (Mom's mother) who had dementia came to live with us. I was off at college, so I didn't experience the challenges of living with Grandma at that point. And when Grandma finally was placed in a nursing home, Steve always went with Mom to visit. Toward the last part of Grandma's life, he was the one who could get Grandma to eat. When I came from college for summer vacation, I found that I was the one who wasn't pulling my caregiving weight in the family. And just a few months before Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and placed in a nursing home in 2005, Steve was nursing his wife, who was dying of cancer. Steve had handled the "yucky" stuff and done an extremely good job.
    • Steve lives several states away from where I live (and where Mom resided). If he had lived closer, I would have been frustrated if he had not been present on a regular basis. And I've learned that this "law of proximity" covers sisters as well as brothers. I have a friend who is the primary family caregiver for a mother with dementia and who has several sisters who live within driving distance. My friend confessed that she is left to handle the "yucky stuff" on a regular basis and expressed frustration that her sisters weren't doing their part to ease some of the caregiving stress on her.
    • My father was (and still is) in the picture, and was able to handle the financial and medical paperwork. Thus, Steve and I didn't have to get into arguments about money, filing deadlines, and other key areas that often turn into combustible points in a family.
    • I regularly kept Steve apprised of what was happening, either through e-mails or phone calls. Part of the reason that I did this was to ensure that I had the younger generation (Steve and my cousin) on my side if I had to sway my father in a caregiving decision.
    • Steve was willing to take over and give me a break when he was in town. Whether during holidays when he came to visit or when Mom was moved for a third time at the nursing home, Steve took over. During those visits, he got to experience Mom's tantrums, her confused behavior, her paranoia, and her hallucinations.

    In retrospect because of all of these factors mentioned above, I believe I didn't have expectations for what Steve's role should be in caregiving.  Marsha Foley, who offers seminars and support groups, was quoted by Ms. Gross as saying, "The experience is bad enough in its own right without all that resentment. You really must give up expecting people to feel and behave as you do. Expectations are what create stress. Having no expectations, if you can get to that point, as a female, is the key to good sibling interactions."

Published On: September 24, 2008