When Siblings Face An Elderly Parent’s Illness by Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW

Susan G. writes: “ I thought that I had buried the hatchet with my sister, but yesterday the resentment I used to feel came rushing back. My elderly mother broke her hip eight months ago, and has been in and out of hospitals and rehabs near my home. I have had the large responsibility of over-seeing her care and I’m exhausted. My sister, Cheryl, an attorney, lives in Boston and has been so insensitive and unavailable, I want to scream!

I reached my breaking point when Cheryl spoke down to me long-distance, in her enraging, know-it-all tone, questioning the way that I had handled Mom’s aide. To make things even worse, when I complained to Mom, she took Cheryl’s side like always, reminding me that Cheryl has a very demanding job. Mom has no clue how much time I spend on her care without help, and it infuriates me that she always defends Cheryl.”

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW, responds: “When extended family systems are overloaded by extreme circumstances, such as illness, financial upheavals or death, people tend to regress to previous, often disruptive, patterns of relating. Lifelong hurts, jealousies and resentments among siblings come storming back with a vengeance, and parents unwittingly can fuel the fire with innocuous comments that are perceived to be unappreciative of one’s efforts or to show favoritism.

Holding onto negative feelings not only compromises the ability to be helpful to one’s parents, but also seriously depletes one’s emotional and physical well-being. Important steps can be taken to lessen the sting of the conflicts, and to forge stronger, more gratifying relationships. Staying in an angry and unreachable place is actually a choice. Susan should make a concerted effort to move past her differences with Cheryl.

If Susan sticks to the facts, and avoids a sarcastic, accusatory tone, she might be better able to reach out to her sister. She should avoid interpreting Cheryl’s actions (i.e. “You think that your job is so important, that you don’t consider my feelings!”) In fact, Cheryl might care much more than it seems and might have her own frustrations of which Susan is not aware. Is it possible that Cheryl backs off in defense because of Susan’s anger?

Saying “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” when appropriate can have tremendous mileage. If Susan is more understanding of Cheryl’s position, she will be better able to articulate how Cheryl can assist her, even long distance. For example, she might request that Cheryl visit her mother on a specific date so that Susan can attend an out of town wedding. Or else, she can request that Cheryl make some of the phone calls, or take charge of their mother’s paperwork. Simple acknowledgements by Cheryl – for example, recognizing that Susan has borne the brunt of their mother’s care – would go a long way, and make Susan feel better appreciated by her sister.

Adult children play a crucial role in helping aging parents. The emotional and physical demands require a concerted effort on everyone’s part to work collaboratively and supportively to provide the necessary care.

Linda Lipshutz, LCSW, ACSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and can be reached in her Palm Beach Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com.

Author's Bio: 

Linda Lipshutz, MS, LCSW, ACSW is an individual, marriage and family therapist who practices in Palm Beach
Gardens, Florida.