Only Children Vs. Sharing Decisions With Siblings – Which is Easier?


    In the world of caregiving, sibling issues abound. Any problems that were around when you were growing up will likely turn up again, as your parents age. The pecking order rarely changes. The "girl" work and the "boy" work rarely changes. 


    There are exceptions, of course. And there are a few families that get along so well that these issues never are a problem. But watching our parents age is nearly always difficult, and when you throw in complicated decisions about whether to go ahead with dangerous or expensive treatment with a frail elder, differences of opinion abound. Even living decisions - stay home, assisted living, nursing home? - can cause great conflict.

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    So, often, I get emails asking about how to handle sibling issues. They end with something like, "It must be nice to be an only child. I do the work alone, but I have to fight to make decisions. Only children don't have that problem."


    I try to encourage siblings to sit down together and talk through what needs to be done. Find each other's strengths and play to them. Assign duties to everyone, rather than wait for people to say, "Tell me if you need anything," to the primary caregiver - and then pack up and go home.


    I even suggest a third party to help walk them through decisions, so they can get beyond childhood grievances. This would help many families. It could be a therapist, but it could be a social worker or someone from your local Alzheimer's organization.

    However, this is the real world, and often none of these suggestions are well taken.  Siblings end up angry over the care, or perceived lack of care, of the elder. They end up angry over money and belongings. Generally, time heals many wounds and families mend fences. But sometimes, family members go their separate ways after the deaths of the parents, and are never again come together as a family, in the true meaning of the word.  

    Of course, I also hear from "only children." There's no one to really share the pain with you as you watch your parent die. There's no one to talk over what decision is best; no one to give suggestions about finding resources. It can feel very lonely.


    I encourage the only child to form a different kind of family - one built around friends of their parents, their own peers, kindred spirits from their church, synagogue or support group. I encourage them to hire help so they can get away. I encourage them to go to elder care support groups to talk out their problems (just as I do with caregivers who have siblings).


    However, there is a loneliness that many only children feel acutely as their parents die and they are left as the only placeholder of the next generation. This reality can be hard to bear, and many would be better off if they seek help getting through the heavy feelings, rather than carry the burden alone. 


    Obviously, both situations have positive and negative sides. And, as humans, we tend to see the grass as greener on the other side of the fence. Caregiving can be very hard. Helping loved ones die is very hard.


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    This is a case of "be careful what you wish for." There will be days when an only child will be delighted not to have to fight out a crucial decision with siblings. She can make a decision and be comfortable with it. There will be days when a person with a passel of siblings will feel grateful that he doesn't have to shoulder the grief alone. He'll have the support of siblings. So there will be days of gratitude to balance out the days of envy.


    Acceptance of what is comes first. Then you can look for solutions to your unique situation.


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Published On: July 14, 2008