When Sibling Dynamics Affect Dementia Care: 7 Scenarios

Cain and Abel, Ann and Abby, Venus and Serena ... as long as there are siblings, there will be rivalries. The degree to which this affects your parent’s care is, of course, relative.

But wait, you may be thinking, my siblings and I get along great, and we all want the best for Mom. What could go wrong? Well, a lot.

“When adult children are required to make decisions for a parent with dementia, they are often shocked by how quickly and intensely even strong sibling bonds can falter,” says Lisa Davis, Executive Director at YourLife™ of Coconut Creeka Memory Care community in Coconut Creek, Florida. “But families who are mindful of what could ‘go wrong’ can make conscious efforts to understand each other’s point of view, facilitate rational communication, and ease resentments that may be preventing their parent from getting the care they deserve.”

In this post, we’ll present 7 common scenarios where sibling dynamics can affect caregiving.

SCENARIO 1: Your take-charge sister, whom you’re more than happy to let plan the family reunions, might rush to put a plan in place before considering her siblings’ input.

If your parent does not require emergency care or relocation to a safer environment, discuss what is worrying her. Is she scared? Does she think no one else will step up and make a decision? Is she worried your parent’s abilities will change overnight? Does she need “do something” to make sense of your parent’s illness? Calmly ask her to slow down and present her with information about the disease as well as her siblings’ proposed solutions, both short- and long-term. Then decide together what needs to be done immediately and task her with making those arrangements. Commit to revisiting the care plan regularly.


SCENARIO 2: Your out-of-town, out-of-mind sister who visits once a year suddenly becomes very interested in the handling of your mom’s finances.

Find out where this is coming from. Is she worried about her inheritance? Does she not fully understand the high costs of senior care? Does she not trust the person currently in charge of your parent’s assets? From the time your parent’s finances come under someone else’s control, that person would do well to maintain complete transparency. Consider a Google spreadsheet that all involved parties can view at any time (but only the money manager can edit) and account for every incoming and outgoing dollar. Is this more work for the person in charge of finances? Maybe. Will it take away grounds for suspicion, accusations, and even your family’s chance of winding up in court? Definitely.


SCENARIO 3: Your brother with a full-time job and two teenagers in the house insists Mom’s fine when she is decidedly not.

What comes across as dismissiveness or a lack of concern could be a lack of education or a classic case of denial. Your brother could be feeling guilty for not being more available or present in your mother’s life, so he convinces himself all is well.

Possible Approach: Education and empathy. Have frank discussions, with no blame-throwing. Share specifically why you are worried, e.g., Mom got lost on the way home from the grocery store last Wednesday. If he feels guilty, perhaps giving him a role he can manage with his packed schedule will help. Examples might be doing your mother’s grocery shopping when he does his own or picking up her dry cleaning from the cleaners he passes every day on his way home from work.

SCENARIO 4: Your older sister defines martyrdom.

Unfortunately, martyrs are going to martyr. While irritating in normal times, be aware that this could come at great expense to your parent’s care and well-being. Read about the dangers of caregiver martyr syndrome and how to manage it in this article by Jenerations Health Education.


SCENARIO 5: Your siblings are turning on each other.

Agreeing that you want the best for your mother might be the only thing you agree on, including the definition of “best.” From whether Mom can still drive, to where she should live, to how long her naps should be, you can count on just about everyone having an opinion.

Pick your battles, agree to disagree, and remind everyone that your parent needs you to stick together. Is it possible your heated arguments are more likely due to stress or old resentments than to widely opposing opinions? Depending on the intensity of your rifts, you might consider hiring a professional family mediator to get you through the caregiving journey on the same page.


SCENARIO 6: Unfair division of labor.

Resentment isn’t always a carryover from childhood. It can manifest, for example, when one or two siblings who are unhappy about bearing the brunt of caring for a parent with dementia while their other siblings go about life as normal. Retired or stay-at-home siblings – those who have what the others perceive to be “free time” – are usually the ones who become primary caregivers. Naturally, siblings who feel forced into the position can resent the insinuation that they don’t have full, purposeful lives. Worse, they’re often at risk for caregiver burnout, which can be detrimental to their loved one’s safety or quality of care.

Express the need for support. Hold a meeting and – together – divide up responsibilities suited to each person’s strengths, schedules, and other logistics. Stress that your mother’s well-being depends on adjustments from all of you.


SCENARIO 7: Your siblings flat-out refuse to help.

Perhaps you’ve heard arguments such as: “You’re Mom’s favorite, she prefers your help” or “I helped raise you, I should be able to enjoy my retirement” or “Mom and I never got along, I don’t owe her anything” or any other excuse siblings can dig up from their past.

While this can be infuriating, it’s probably not entirely unexpected. Remember, adult children have had decades to settle in their familial roles, and the only major role-reversal you can count on is your parent’s. If your youngest brother has always been the lackadaisical, irresponsible type, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t step up now.

For your parent’s sake and your own sanity, give up trying appeal to their sense of familial duty as soon as you realize it’s for naught. Instead, refocus and take a page out of the only-child handbook and enlist support from other family members, friends, or local senior services. It’s important to remember you are not alone on this journey, even when it sure does feel like it.


Learn more about navigating sibling dynamics and other issues at our Family Caregiver Support Groups at YourLife™ of Coconut Creek! ​954-228-6319



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