I was the executor for my parents’ estate. A few months after my mother’s death, my friend Anna exclaimed, “Forget the money. Demand a DNA test! You cannot be related to these people!”
I am sad to admit that the disagreements some of my brothers and I had during the final stages of my parents’ lives were just a warm up to the battles that ensued after Mom and Dad died. There were many factors that contributed to our disagreements, including birth order, education, the people we married, the places we have lived, our careers, friends, faith, and financial resources.
Is it possible to avoid all-out war among siblings?
There is nothing simple or easy about caring for adult parents. Making decisions about how their finances and end-of-life healthcare should be managed frequently leads to middle aged sibling rivalry. If you want to avoid these unpleasant conflicts, you might want to start with accepting the validity of the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
There were several things that went wrong in my family that could have been prevented if my parents had taken more care with their planning process. One of my brothers farmed with my dad. No doubt there were a lot of assumptions and verbal agreements made. Unfortunately for my brother, none of those “understandings” were mentioned in our parents’ trust.
Keeping peace within the family begins with having a series of uncomfortable conversations.
The most significant action that can be taken to keep peace in any family is to make plans for incapacity and death long before a crisis occurs. If your parents have not done this, you will need to gather your courage and tell them that you need to have an uncomfortable conversation.
It’s important to understand and accept that this will most likely be difficult for everyone involved. Facing one’s own mortality can be scary. People don’t like to think about it or talk about it, so you will want to approach the conversation with sensitivity and respect.
Tips for having a successful outcome:
- State the issue or concern
- Ask for permission to have the conversation
- Ask open-ended questions
State the Issue:
Mom, Dad, all of us are concerned that at some point in the future you might need help managing your affairs. It would make us feel a lot more comfortable to know what you wanted us to do if you were in a position where you could no longer care for yourselves. Keeping peace in the family is important to all of us, and we think it’s likely that we could disagree about how you would want things handled.
Ask for permission:
Would you be willing to have a discussion and let us know how you would want your healthcare and finances managed if something happened and you weren’t able to do take care of those things for yourself? (If they agree to meet with you, schedule a time to meet. Don’t put it off.)
Ask open-ended questions:
Make a list of the items that concern you ahead of time, and be aware that your parents may have two conflicting needs:
- The need for independence
- The need for assistance
When you sit down face to face, focus on helping them maintain as much decision-making control as possible by asking open-ended questions. These are questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Each question should start with a phrase like:
How do you feel about__________?
Who could help us with ____________?
What would you like to do about_________?
What are your thoughts on ___________?
What matters most when you consider ____________?
You will want to record their wishes regarding issues such as:
- Where would they want to go if they could no longer live alone?
- Do they expect to move in with you or one of your siblings?
- Would they want one of their children to move in with them?
- Would they prefer to hire professional help so they could stay in their own home?
- Do they want to stay in their own community, or would they be willing to move to a new city or state in order to be close to one of their kids?
- If they need to go into long-term care, how will they pay for it?
- Do they have long-term care insurance?
- Would the money come out of retirement savings?
- If assets need to be sold to generate cash, what would they want you to sell first?
- Is there a point at which they would want to stop life-extending treatments and go into hospice care?
- What are their wishes regarding life support and tube feeding?
- And finally, how do they want their possessions distributed after their death?
Having these conversations can be unsettling and upsetting, but it’s worth the discomfort, because if all of the proper documents are in order when something does happen, there won’t be any room for conflict, even if you and your siblings don’t like the choices your parents made.
If your parents haven’t thought about any of these issues before, this conversation could quickly become overwhelming for all of you. Find out if they have done any end-of-life planning. If they haven’t, make an appointment with an elder law attorney as quickly as possible. A good elder law attorney can guide you through making the types of decisions that can protect family assets and prevent emotional meltdowns in hospital corridors over issues like tube feeding and life support.
Must have end-of-life documents
There are three critical documents every person, regardless of their financial situation, needs to complete in order to control how their healthcare, finances and possessions will be handled during the final stages of life:
- A trust or a will
- A durable power of attorney
- An Advance Directive with a named healthcare representative
It is possible to download these documents from the Internet and fill them out yourself, but the money you spend getting professional guidance will seem minuscule in comparison to the hostilities and heartbreaks that could result from not completing these documents correctly.
What if you are the only responsible child?
Unfortunately, in a lot of families, there is one child who ends up carrying the bulk of the caregiving load. If you are the “responsible child” in your family, be prepared for criticism. Your siblings may not show up when you need help. They may never appreciate the time, energy, and money you are investing in your parents’ care. They may be quicker to complain than to compliment, and when they offer advice, it may appear that their primary concern is for themselves – not for your parents.
If this happens to you, focus on doing the right thing for your parents and try to not let your siblings’ behavior drain you of the emotional energy you need in your role as their primary family caregiver.
What if your ability to help is limited?
If you live at a distance and the demands of your work and/or family make it impossible for you to take an active role in the care of your parents, do what you can to support the sibling who is the primary family caregiver.
Use some of your vacation time to provide respite care for your sibling. If that isn’t possible, perhaps you could pay for a housekeeper, adult day care or respite care. You could order delicious, nutritious single-serving meals that could be delivered frozen to your parents’ home. (Just Google “Home Delivered Meals for Seniors”!)
If money is tight and you can’t contribute financially, you can still afford to be generous with praise and appreciation. It may be obvious to you that your sibling could streamline some of his/her efforts to make the process easier or more efficient, but unless your parents’ safety is in jeopardy, keep your mouth shut.
Providing care for an aging, chronically ill, or disabled family member is one of the most difficult and generous acts of love any of us will ever perform on behalf of another. If you let your sibling(s) know that you are deeply appreciative of their commitment and contribution, you will stand a much greater chance of keeping peace in the family.
It took my brothers and I a long time to reach that place of peace. They came to Oregon last spring for a visit. It was the first time all four of us had gotten together since our mother’s funeral in 2002. Even though I knew the main purpose for their visit was to see our 87-year-old Aunt, I invited them to stay in our home, and I was pleased when they accepted my invitation.
Over the course of the weekend, we acknowledged that the years after Dad’s stroke were painful. None of us defended, explained or apologized for anything that happened. We intentionally avoided conversations about politics and religion. Everyone was kind and thoughtful, and I laughed out loud when my oldest brother said, “I have often wondered how we could have grown up in the same house and all turned out so differently.”
We have all done some things well, and we have each made some mistakes for which we have paid dearly. That weekend, we cut each other a lot of slack. In hindsight, I know if given the chance to do it all over, there are things each of us would do differently. But we can’t turn back the clock. We each did the best we could at the time, and rehashing mistakes or trying to change perceptions wouldn’t change or fix anything.
When my brothers left, I knew that we would never view the past, present or future through a similar lens. But we did reach a place of peace and acceptance. Our DNA and the fact that we were loved by the same set of parents and raised under the same roof, may be the only things we will ever have in common. I’m hoping those things will be enough to keep us connected and caring about one another as we step out of our roles as members of the sandwich generation and into our positions as the newest generation of family elders.
Elaine K Sanchez is a Caregiver Speaker and the co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com. She writes the daily Caregiver Blog “Caregiver Help Word of the Day” To contact Elaine about speaking to your organization, call 503-949-2464 or email: elaine@EKSanchez.com