When caregiving strains sibling relationships

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Until my mother became ill, my brother and I had a close relationship. But, a disagreement over which rehab facility she might go to put the proverbial nail in the coffin. My brother’s parting phrase outside my mother’s hospital room was, “You come waltzing into my town and think you know everything!”

Then he stopped speaking to me. For a long time, our communication was confined to stilted emails. I still rage thinking about the needless drama. Talk about ill will!

Caring for parents brings complicated emotions

Sadly, I’ve seen many friends and relatives also come to blows with siblings. Caregiving can trigger tremendous friction. (Of course, it can also bring families closer.) 

There can be resentment (“why do I have to do everything?”, “what about time for me?”), guilt (“I’m not doing enough or I’m neglecting my own family”), hurt (“I’m being kept out of the loop or criticized for the way I do provide care”), or all out sparring.

Caring for parents can quickly bring siblings back to old family dynamics: for example, “the selfish one,” “the control freak,” “the cheapskate,” “the know-it-all” or “the favorite.” 

Watching a parent decline is mentally and physically exhausting. Emotions run hot, and it can be especially hard for families not used to working together or not close to begin with.

Many reasons for sibling rancor

When it comes to caregiving, there are countless opportunities for conflict and bad blood! The six main areas of sibling clashes involve: 

1. Responsibilities. Who devotes time, and how much, to Mom and Dad, including visiting, and who doesn’t? Dissent also occurs around uneven distributions of labor or expecting another sibling to "handle" the situation. Expecting another sibling to “handle” the situation. In my experience, daughters often step up the most, regardless of where they live. Feeling overburdened, unsupported and unappreciated. Or, adversely, feeling excluded. Problems when one child thinks their parent needs more help and another disagrees.

2. Living arrangements and housing. Is the parent’s living situation practical and safe? Are there too many steps? Do they have a support system nearby? Should they stay at home or move, and if so, where? Should they live with or near a child, in a senior living community, or somewhere else? 

3. Medical decisions, including end-of-life. Who makes them if parents can’t? Should they get a second opinion? 

4. Independence. What can they, and can’t they, do safely by themselves? For instance, should they be driving or living on their own? 

5. Money. How is it being spent, and who’s chipping in (or not) if there’s a need? If a parent can no longer handle their finances, which sibling will? Are they transparent and trustworthy? Is one child inheriting more than another? 

6. Assets and possessions. Who gets what after parents are gone? What if two or more siblings want the same piece of art or furniture, for example? 

Do any of these issues apply to you? If so, it's easy to become both infuriated and hurt. But before you react, try these tips I learned from personal family friction:

Consider the impact on others. When my mother was in rehab, she told me, “I may have had a stroke, but I know I never see you two in the same room. It makes me so sad.” 

My children and his also knew that my brother and I weren’t on good terms. That was awkward for them. The consequences of not getting along affect more people than just the two or more of you who don't see eye to eye.

Figure out the best way for everyone to communicate and contribute. What works best for your family—Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, a family site, email, the phone or a care coordination app to sign up for tasks and get updates (CaringBridge, Lotsa Helping Hands, CareZone, Caring Village)? 

Ask all siblings how they want to help. Is it ordering groceries to be delivered, taking Dad for weekly outings, paying their bills online, visiting more, being the point person with doctors, writing a check to hire a house cleaner, or cover out-of-pocket caregiving expenses? They may choose not to pitch in, but at least they know it’s expected.

Think about the reasons for dissent. Is it really just about your parent? Could the disagreements be about old grudges, the need to be right, or people’ egos? Is there any merit to your siblings’ points of view? Could you compromise on the issue?

Are you contributing to the problem? Is there a way to deescalate the situation? If your sister, for instance, feels taken for granted, can you let her know you’re appreciative? Does a “bossy” sibling even realize you want to do more or have a say? 

Listen! Unless it’s a health, safety or cognitive issue, what do your parents want? This is not about you! If the conversation gets heated with siblings, take a break before it gets ugly.

Still squabbling? Consider an intermediary, like clergy, a family therapist, friend or elder mediator.

Deal with the now. When I was beside myself with my brother’s behavior, a social worker in hospice gave me good advice: focus on my mission, which was to make sure my mother felt loved. She said I could figure out the kind of relationship I wanted with my brother at a later date. 

Accept Reality. If your sibling is nasty, clueless or a jerk, that may not change. I remember telling myself repeatedly, “Behave in a way that I have no regrets after Mom is gone.” 


 It turns out that after my mother died, my brother decided he did want a relationship with me. His calls resumed as if nothing had happened. I was stunned, but also tired of being estranged. Speaking with him on the phone, I remember thinking, “Mom, this is for you!”

About the author

Sally Abrahms is an award-winning writer focusing on 50+ family caregiving, baby boomers, housing, technology, and lifestyle. She has published in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times and AARP and is the author of two books and contributor to four. 


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