How to Deal with a Difficult Sibling in Decision-making for an Aging Parent

by Dale on February 2, 2010

It seems that every day I have a similar conversation with friends and colleagues.  “I can’t get our family on the same page about our elderly parent.  It’s like my brother came in from another planet.”  I laughed the first time I heard that statement but realize that’s exactly how I felt about my brother!

Why is it so hard for a family to listen to Mom or Dad, consider the options and then, in a unified way, make the right decision in Mom or Dad’s best interest?  I’ll share some of the reasons I believe to be true and then a few possible strategies.

First of all, we siblings often live hundreds of miles apart and only get together a couple times a year, limiting any kind of relationship building.   Mom and Dad have managed very well on their own since we left home so we just hope and pray they will continue to do so.  It’s hard to accept any change in them or to envision them living any other way.  Besides, they don’t seem to want to talk about it.  And, then we fall back into our old roles, re-enacting family dramas of the past.   While my mother still lived in her own home (even though it was a home I had never lived in), as soon as I walked in the door, I felt as if I was swept back in time and was a child again.  Feelings, emotions and defenses suddenly surfaced.  Because my time was often short there and filled with tasks and responsibilities, I would take the path of least resistance and respond, as if on auto-pilot.  It was like an out of body experience.  Once I got started, I had no idea how to stop.

You see I was the first-born, the over-achiever, the good girl who did everything right, and my brother was the goof-off, the one you couldn’t rely on.  As soon as we got back together, we slipped right back into those roles.  It was terribly dysfunctional but in, an odd way, it was comfortable.

It wasn’t until our elderly mother had a major health/life crisis that my brother and I had to come to terms and work together.  At first, he was on vacation and unreachable, so I went into my “control mode” and handled everything.  But. once he returned, we had to work together.  It was one of the hardest and messiest things I’ve ever had to do.

I wished I had read the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
and learned to put its techniques into practice BEFORE my mother’s crisis!  I think it would have helped me work through our family situation in a healthier fashion.

The author poses a key question, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?” Oh, if I had just had that phrase/ that thought back when my mother was in crisis.  The question truly humanizes a person.  It helps us believe the best about a person and seek the underlying motivation for their words and actions.  After all, my brother and I both wanted our mother to have the best quality of life possible for the rest of her life.  We both shared the same desire.  It was just that our approach, our timing, our perspective of how to get there differed dramatically.  And, we had no tools to discuss and negotiate our path.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
offers  another gem of advice.  The authors say that instead of getting stuck in an “either/or” trap, expand the problem.  Yes!  Add complexity.  Combine it with an AND question that forces more creative and productive thinking. It can get us past auto-pilot responses of withdrawal or control.  Here’s an example:  Is there a way to talk to my brother about keeping his commitments AND not come across as self-righteous and demanding?

And, through these tough conversations, the authors advise us to be sure to establish mutual purpose (what do we both want?) and mutual respect (care about each other.)

If you have an aging parent, I highly recommend getting a copy of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
for yourself and siblings!  It’s full of other helpful tips and strategies.

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