Going It Alone

When your siblings don’t help you take care of your aging parents.


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Social worker Marty Bulger suggests open dialogue with siblings on elder care.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Susan, 57, of Berkeley, asked her younger sister, who lives in Northern California, to help with their aging mom. The sister said “no.” Susan, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, later found out that her sister had indeed come to the Bay Area on the same day that she asked for help, but it was to attend a San Francisco Giants game.

Another time, after their 88-year-old mother had died last year, Susan asked her older brother to go through the family belongings before selling their mother’s home in Moraga. The brother said “no.” But he did find the time to go on another day and pick out everything that he wanted for himself. On the actual moving day? He was MIA.

Not only was Susan the only one of her three siblings helping Mom out with dementia and dying, but she said her brother and sister were nitpicky with how she was taking care of things. “They were critical of me even though they didn’t help,” she said.

Susan said she knows from her circle of friends that she is not alone. This issue is prevalent among many adult children her age and venting to her buddies is what got her through many of the hard times.

Martha “Marty” Bulger, a licensed social worker in Oakland with a special expertise in aging, loss, and grief, said that joining a support group, venting to friends, and even finding a specialized therapist are all good ways to deal with handling an elderly parent, whether you have helpful siblings or not. She also said that there are plenty of online groups to find and join, as well, where virtual conversations and stories might also be insightful.

But she also offered some common-sense tips to address the problem head-on. Bulger said that if the siblings are open with each other, they can discuss who will shoulder which chore, sort of like setting up a work wheel. In her case, her sister helped with all of their elderly mother’s finances, while she’d visited their mom more regularly, because she lived closer. “The plans and schedules should try to make the care more equitable,” she said.

In cases like Susan’s, Bulger advised that she speak up to her siblings, asking if they could perhaps rotate visiting Mom once a month, while she would do the daily or weekly visits because she lived the closest.

“This has been exhausting for me.” “I feel like I’m the only caretaker.” “I’m wondering what you could do to help.” “What are you willing to do?” These are all phrases that could be used to open a dialogue, Bulger suggested. “You just have to put it out there,” she said.

And for the siblings who live far away and feel guilty for not helping? Bulger suggested they might reach out to their brothers and sisters who are doing the majority of the work, so as to make them feel appreciated. She said conversations could start like this: “I feel so frustrated. I wish it could be different where I could help more. What would be the most helpful to you? I wish I could be more physically involved.”

Finally, Bulger said that if the adult children who are doing all of the work have siblings who aren’t willing to share their feelings and frustrations, then they might just have to just “suck it up.”

That’s essentially what Susan did, using her friends as her sounding board. She said she never really addressed her resentment with her brother and her sister, wondering if either of them, especially her brother, could handle the emotions of dealing with their frail mother.

So, she decided to focus on how much she loved her mother and how much time she was getting to spend with her during her last days on Earth.

“I got all these pearls of happiness spending so much time with my mom,” Susan said. “I know I was a good daughter, and I couldn’t have done another thing for her. I feel good about it. I was really wrapped up in my mom’s life. My brother and my sister both missed out on that.”

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