New study sheds light on siblings who care for elderly parents

Caregiver stress, life-and-death medical crises, financial problems and property disputes often become part of the ongoing saga of a family’s caregiving story.

Mary is one of seven children. When her widowed mother was showing signs of Alzheimer’s, Mary and her brothers and sisters all had a different understanding of the illness, and different suggestions for how to proceed.

The family wasn’t moving ahead and there were conflicts among the siblings.

Family caregivers who care for aging parents encounter situations like this all the time.

Caregiver stress, life-and-death medical crises, financial problems and property disputes often become part of the ongoing saga of a family’s caregiving story.

As a result, relationships between brothers and sisters can suffer.

The new study of siblings who act as family caregivers, conducted for the Home Instead Senior Care network, sheds new light on sibling dynamics in these situations.

With 29 locations across Canada including Kelowna, Home Instead Senior Care provides home care services for seniors in their own homes and in seniors residences and long-term care facilities.

“Any Kelowna family that has cared for a senior loved one knows that problems working with siblings can lead to family strife,” said Don Henke, owner of Home Instead Senior Care in Kelowna. “Making decisions together, dividing the workload and teamwork are the keys to overcoming family conflict.”

According to the study, four factors determine if relationships among adult children have deteriorated, and whether or not the quality of care for the parents will be compromised in any way because of it.

Those factors are: teamwork, consideration for each other’s ability to help out, willingness to help, and the ability to make important decisions together.

The study said that 40 per cent of family caregivers who say their relationships with siblings have deteriorated blame it on brothers and sisters not being willing to help.

“If you’re 50, have siblings and are assisting with the care of a senior loved one, it’s time to develop a plan,” Henke said.

The study, conducted by The Boomer Project, included 383 adults aged 35 to 64 with living siblings or step-siblings who were either currently providing care for a parent or older relative, or had provided care in the past 18 months.

The study found that:

• Among siblings who care for a parent, the primary caregiver is a 50-year-old sister caring for an 81-year-old mother or a 50-year-old brother caring for an 81-year-old father, and they’ve been the family caregiver for 3.3 years.

• Care is often not shared equally. In 41 per cent of families, one sibling has responsibility for providing all or most of the care for mom or dad, and in only three per cent of families do siblings split the caregiving tasks equally.

• The sibling who is the primary caregiver puts in nearly three times as many hours of care as do their brothers and sisters. On average, the primary family caregiver provides 14 hours of care per week, while other siblings provide five hours of care.

Along with the study, Home Instead Senior Care has launched the 50-50 Rule, a public education campaign that offers strategies for overcoming sibling differences to help families provide the best care for senior parents.

The 50-50 Rule refers to the average age when siblings are caring for their parents, as well as the need for brothers and sisters to share the care responsibility on a 50-50 basis.

The public education campaign includes a guide of family relationships and communications illustrating real-life situations, along with practical advice from Dr. Ingrid Connidis, a leading authority on aging, family relationships and work-life balance.

Connidis is a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario in London, has a PhD in sociology from the University of Toronto, and wrote the book Family Ties and Aging.

Connidis says she has studied or seen just about every family scenario one can imagine, and that the key to avoiding problems with siblings, where it concerns aging parents, is communication.

“Like all relationships, siblings have a history,” Connidis said. “Whatever happened in the past influences what happens in the present.”

The guide and a web site, located at, will offer a variety of tips and resources to help adult siblings work as a team to look after their parents.


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