Making Family Caregiving Work – A Sibling Tale of Understanding

All of us who have siblings, no matter if it is one or a dozen, know what it is like to wonder how people who were raised under one roof can be so very different.

Family caregivers also experience amazement at how siblings can be so different in their ability and desire to be caregivers to family members, especially parents. Shouldn’t we all love and honor them the same?

Siblings grow up together, had pretty much the same childhood experiences, had the same rules, went to the same schools and churches, went on family vacations together and were supposed to be learning to share the load helping each other as we grew.

Same Family but Different Caregiving

What could possibly explain how we are all handling caregiving so differently?

Many family caregivers think “where did it go wrong”? You might wonder why they don’t seem to care as much as you do; why they won’t pitch in and help out; why they won’t make a decision; or, maybe most of all, why you simply don’t communicate better than you do.

It can be hard for a family caregiver, especially one who has spent a lot of time caring for aging loved ones, to understand why a sibling would make a decision that is SO different from what those aging loved ones would have wanted.

It may be a good idea to learn more about the sibling connection so that we can perhaps understand and accept their point of view. We are all different even when we come from under one roof.

Growing Up in a Family

I know when I was growing up one of four children, I wished I was an only child at times. Let’s be honest, who didn’t? One of my best friends from my early childhood was one of twelve kids. She had grown siblings who were in college and one even had their own children before she was ten years old. She was an aunt to kids almost her own age.

Certainly we would expect that her life was markedly different than her older siblings. They would most definitely think and act differently as they were raised almost in what could be considered a different family altogether because of the age gap.

As a child, “only children” seemed lucky to me. They had their own room while I slept on a bunk bed in a room with two more girls. The four kids shared a hall bathroom and I had one dresser drawer to call my own. That lucky only child had her own room, own closet and own bathroom. Surely at times that only child may have been lonely with no one at hand to play a game with and those were the times I was glad I had a sister.

Families, Like People Are All Different

Every family is different from the family down the street. But it is true that within each family we are all different in many ways too. Some families get along very well, others fight continuously. As children become adults, some families still live together while others need to be miles apart. Some siblings speak to each other daily, some won’t speak for months or even years.

Some families are fractured by life events that at times they don’t even realize. Some hold grudges, some just don’t feel the reward in being in close contact. If you don’t feel part of something, loved or appreciated, why bother with keeping in touch?

Families are also dynamic and the way it is today could all be different tomorrow. Families may be close for many years, drift apart only to come together again at a later date, especially when confronted with a traumatic event requiring caregiving. Some families, on the other hand, can’t seem to gel and tragedy only seems to split them deeper apart.

Realizing that being a part of a family can be important to some people even when they are not in close contact or just don’t seem to be able to make the family unit a priority in their life. Understanding and forgiving this type of dynamic will make your life as a caregiver less stressful.

What is true for your childhood experience may be drastically different for an older or younger sibling who dealt with different family situations. You may not realize what an older brother went through after the parents divorced or what the youngest child put up with when they were alone with the parents as the last child left at home. Their life experiences are very different and can impact the adults they become. We don’t always see it in those terms and may misjudge siblings unfairly.

Siblings Under the Microscope

Research has shown some interesting facts about the life and behaviors of siblings. Siblings share parents, environment and genes but certainly not personalities. In terms of personalities, siblings have been described by researchers as strangers. In fact, in terms of personality, we are similar to our siblings only about 20% of the time according to researcher Robert Plomin.

Let’s look at what the research tells us so we can better understand how we are alike and yet different. Our differences growing up and our personalities drive our behavior as adults.

One theory that children from the same family end up being such different individuals is competition. One child has to be superior as one fights for attention and love from the parents. Who will win is evolutionary. When this competition becomes apparent, other children instead of competing head to head, become divergent and look for other ways to excel. This could explain why siblings have different careers, preferences and goals which shape the way they look at the world.

Another theory of sibling differences is that parents, although they try to treat all kids the same, don’t actually treat children the same by virtue of timing. When years separate siblings, life events are different. Jobs, money earned, location, divorce, death and reaction to the needs of the children cause parents to bestow attention on siblings in a different way. Essentially, different age siblings while living in the same family, grow up in ‘different homes’.

Overcoming Caregiving Challenges With Siblings

For most family caregivers who have siblings, one is usually in charge of the caregiving role. There is often a primary sibling who is doing the lion’s share of the caring. This doesn’t always seem fair to the one who is the primary person, but it often happens that way. It can lead to anger, hurt and frustration.

Some children who are not active caregivers can come up with a variety of reasons (you might say excuses) for why they aren’t helping with the duties. They may be long distance, raising their own family, busy with work pressures, having financial difficulties, say they don’t have time, say they can’t handle seeing the loved one “like that,” aren’t physically able, and some may be waiting to be asked.

It is hard to accept these reasons since it makes you wonder – do I have time, money, less family pressures, more physical ability or enjoy seeing family members being vulnerable? Naturally you don’t but you are somehow more equipped to do the caregiving out of bravery, emotions, or training. That doesn’t make your siblings any less loving toward the family.

What you can do is understand this and capitalize on their strengths.

  • Does a brother do better with computers or numbers? Ask them to handle the insurance, accounting, finances and computer set up for family communications.
  • Does one sister enjoy cooking? Ask her to keep the pantry stocked and freezer full of microwave meals for the senior loved one.
  • Does a young adult grandchild have time after school to transport older loved ones or sit as a companion/supervisor while you run errands?
  • Does one sibling have money to pay for caregivers if he or she doesn’t want to do it themselves?

Make it Work

Find ways to involve your siblings that are not out of their comfort zone to provide a respite for you. You can still be the primary caregiver getting the support you need from siblings in a way that works for everyone.

Use the understanding and emotions you are bottling up inside to make lists, ask for help and keep yourself healthy mentally and physically when dealing with your siblings. They may not come around to your way of thinking, but they may give you something you need in other ways.

If they don’t, stop fighting a losing battle and move on. They may surprise you with re-entering the picture when it can be their own idea in their own time. We have to put ourselves in others’ shoes before we can appreciate the path they have endured – including our own siblings!