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How to share caregiving responsibilities with your sibling(s)

Taking care of an aging parent who’s still living at home can be both rewarding and exhausting. Add a chronic illness such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and the situation can become even more complex. Sharing responsibilities with your siblings can offer much-needed support, but it can also be frustrating or even straining for your relationship if you’re not careful.

Most well-intentioned siblings (usually a daughter) take on the caregiving role expecting the responsibilities to be equal or shared, but that isn’t always the reality. A recent study we conducted at the University of Toronto suggests that in many cases, geographic proximity to the parent, individual expertise or skillset, and work schedules can cause an imbalance in caregiving responsibilities, leaving one sibling to take on more than their share. This can lead to feelings of resentment.

While sharing caregiving responsibilities with a sibling (or multiple siblings) can be challenging, it’s not impossible. As you embark on this journey with your family, consider the following five questions:

1. How will you maintain open communication with your sibling(s)?

Clear and consistent communication between siblings will make it easier to divide tasks and discuss expectations of how each of you wants to share care. If you need help in a particular aspect of care, discuss this with your sibling(s) rather than assuming they will know. Check-in with each other regularly and discuss personal plans, such as travelling, to make sure someone is available to take care of your parent’s needs.

2. How will you balance responsibilities with siblings further away?

Long-distance caregivers can provide important emotional support to the sibling who lives closest to their parent. Just calling your sibling and listening may not sound like much help, but a “listening ear” is often just what they need. Caregivers further away can also offer valuable support with managing finances, booking appointments, arranging services, or gathering information about health services and medications. Online shopping for the parent is also a great option given the many delivery options available.

3. How can you break down stereotypical gender roles?

Rather than dividing roles based on gender, have an open discussion about the types of tasks you think are best-suited to you and your siblings’ skills (while keeping practical issues such as geographic distance and availability in mind). If you feel that your sibling unfairly expects you to do certain things because of your gender, have an honest conversation with them about why you feel this way and how they can be more involved in sharing those responsibilities.

4. Who can take on what based on their expertise or skillset?

Discussing your strengths, interests, and weaknesses can help to guide the division of caregiving responsibilities in a way that avoids resorting to stereotypical gender norms. For example, if a sibling excels at money management, let them be in charge of the finances; if cooking is a strength, have them take-on meal preparation. Of course, there will inevitably be some tasks that neither you nor your sibling(s) want to do. In these cases, it is important to keep the lines of communication open to understand and address the reason that nobody wants to complete a particular task. This can help you and your siblings reach a compromise that is acceptable to everyone involved.

5. How will you manage with your work schedule(s)?

Discussing your caregiving duties with your employer may be a good place to start, even if caregiving accommodations are not in your employee handbook. As caregiving becomes more common, employers are often willing to accommodate.  You may also wish to explore all available community supports and services to help care for your parent while you and your sibling(s) are at work. Despite your best efforts, unforeseen issues may arise, so it is important to be patient with your sibling(s) and accommodate as you’re able. Developing a contingency plan, such as knowing a neighbour you can call for help or where local day programs are for when such situations arise, could also help ensure your parent is always cared for.

Remember, you are not alone. Caring for a parent with health complications is a journey many of us will take in our lives. Conflicts are likely to arise and it will be important for you and your family to know how to work through them.

This article was co-authored by Kristina Kokorelias, primary author of the study cited in this posting and a postdoctoral fellow in the St. John’s Rehab Research Program. Her research aims to help older adults and their families navigate the health care system. Follow her on Twitter @kmkokorelias.

About the author

Marina B. Wasilewski

Marina B. Wasilewski, PhD is a scientist in the St. John’s Rehab Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) and an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto. Her research is focused on mobilizing social and peer support to optimize the health and well-being of patients and families as they journey across the healthcare continuum. Follow her on Twitter @mbastaw.