Today’s adult children and their parents are going through a new kind of family transition. With the increasing longevity of parents into their 80’s and 90’s, often experiencing chronic illnesses, their adult children may be involved in caring for them for up to a decade or more.
Siblings and in some cases step-siblings, may not have a roadmap for caregiving that will help them deal with the many practical and financial issues that go with it. How to interact as mature adults through the often emotional and challenging issues that present themselves, can be an opportunity for the growth of one’s character, not something you really think about until you are in it.
My three sisters and I are able to laugh at ourselves more easily now than we used to on how we tend to slip into our old roles when we all get together, even though we can behave very differently when we are with other people or functioning in our regular work or home lives. Dynamics and family patterns are sure to emerge as siblings face the need to come together more intimately when the declining health of one or both parents is surfacing. It helps to check in with yourself with a sense of inquiry to see if you are feeling yourself being pulled into an old pattern of behavior that you played out in the family mobile and question what reactions that may be triggering.
Whatever the old roles were, it serves you to re-examine them now. Don’t look to one sibling to be the peacemaker or to mom or dad, who often cannot fulfill this role anymore. It helps if everyone takes responsibility for being mature and the platform of family caregiving is the perfect motivator. Creating a way to keep the lines of communication open takes some work and strong intention. Keep in mind that parents can often tell their kids different things about how they are doing.
Trying to keep everyone on the same page takes each person recognizing that it is time to let go of old ways and be committed to honest, direct communication and understanding of how the vulnerability of aging and loss can affect a parent’s behavior. This commitment can only start with each sibling’s desire to do it differently and then get on the train and participate fully with this clear intention.
Four women, somewhat mature but still influenced by the past, had to each bring this commitment to our own family journey of caregiving first of our father and then our mother. It took letting go of our defenses and being willing to listen, listen and then listen some more. What is the outcome? You understand each other better and you also come to understand yourself and your vulnerabilities in a new way. And in between all of it, there is great pride in being able to help your parent and feel satisfaction that you are doing something very important and valuable.
Bonnie Lawrence, with the Family Caregiver Alliance, offers some clues to help you recognize when you are acting out of emotional needs or entering a battlefield of old patterns or behaviors. Be watchful when: 1) Your level of emotion is out of proportion to the specific thing being discussed in the moment about the needs of your parent 2) You or your siblings criticize the way you think another person is being, for example selfish, bossy, uncaring, irresponsible, or worse. 3) You feel that none of your siblings understands what mom needs the way you do and you are the only one who can do certain things. 4) You or your siblings generalize a discussion, saying, for example, ‘You always do this!’ 5) You or your siblings criticize the way one another feels, for example, ‘You don’t care anything about Mom.’
When having a family meeting to open up dialogue about your caregiving of a parent, there are a few basic ground rules. If you can’t all meet in person, a skype conference call is a good option. Start with an agreement: Start your discussion with the common ground you share. Sometimes just agreeing that the discussion will be hard is a good place to start. Ask a sibling to help you understand his or her side: People want to be heard; if they don’t feel heard, frustration rises.
Ask the other person to share their point of view. Asking for input shows that you care and have interest in learning more about how the other person feels. Resist the urge to plan a comeback or a rebuttal: Your brain cannot listen well and prepare to speak at the same time. Keep a check on your inner voice and focus on the person in front of you. Help the other person understand your side, too: Describe how you feel, your thoughts, your ideas, and the reasons behind your thought process.
Communicate clearly and simply; don’t speak in circles or in code. Move the conversation forward: Find some common ground again. Make a suggestion and then ask for feedback from the other sibling (s). Keep in touch: More attention is needed after a tough conversation. Check back in and see how your sibling (s) feel about the outcome. And remember, life is impermanent. Sharing in caregiving is a door that opens you to your own soul. Don’t miss the opportunity.
Marjorie Horne, Facilitator, Shifting Into Elderhood Workshop May 27. Contact her @ 250-863-9577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.