Remember fighting with your brothers or sisters over which TV show to watch? Fast forward to the present, when the stakes are higher and you're disagreeing not over "Star Trek" vs. "Gomer Pyle" but over how to tend to your aging parents.
You've got plenty of company. More than 43 million U.S. adults look after an older relative or friend for free — but only four in ten of them feel they had a choice and only one in 10 who get help from anyone else feel they split the care equally, according to a National Alliance for Caregiving study called "Caregiving in the United States: A Focused Look at Those Caring for Someone 50 or Older." The 2009 report found Americans in this role pitch in by providing transportation (84 percent), doing housework (75 percent), shopping for groceries (75 percent), preparing meals (64 percent), managing finances (62 percent), giving medications (42 percent), and arranging or supervising paid services such as nurses or aides (37 percent).
So if you and your siblings are arguing about how to take care of your aging parents or feel the burden is unfairly distributed, what should you do? Some tips:
1. Think about why you're sniping. You're worried about your aging parents, and you feel stress from watching their health decline. "It's a way of dealing with the grief," says Carl Hindy, a clinical psychologist in Nashua, N.H. "It's easier to be mad than to be sad. I would rather get them to be sad because I think we can have more healing there." It's unsettling to think about parents' eventual death. "It brings out lots of different feelings of guilt and loss," says Hindy.
2. Focus on what unites you. You love your parents, and you share many memories of life with them. Think about these facts when you're tempted to lash out at each other. "Try to build bridges," says Hindy. "Magnify what you have in common rather than differences."
3. Try not to keep score. Sometimes siblings feel a brother or sister isn't doing enough (and never did), or is not doing what the parents would want. They may say, "She would have wanted me to take care of it," or "No, she would have wanted me,'" says Hindy.
4. Talk to each other. Sure, it sounds obvious, but not everyone does it. "As in all conflicts, you have to sit down and communicate in a way that is not yelling and screaming at one another," says Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry for Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.
5. Discuss your parents' wishes with them before they're incapacitated. "It's very important to say, 'Mom and dad, you're doing well now. What do you want us to do? How can we help you as you get older?'" says Turner. "Try to be proactive." You and your siblings will be less likely to argue about what mom and dad want if you've heard it from their mouths. They're OK with a nursing home — or they'd like to stay home no matter what.
6. Divide responsibilities. Ideally, your parents gave someone durable power of attorney and other duties long ago — and explained why they chose each person for these particular roles, says Turner. It's best if siblings can "air out" their feelings about these assignments before mom and dad's health is compromised. To help parents who haven't given anyone durable power of attorney or who haven't written a living will, get help from a lawyer. (To find one, you can contact your local or state bar association or the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.) Meanwhile, siblings can play to their strengths. Give the banker in the family to take on some bill-paying responsibilities. "Be very clear about who's going to do what," says Turner.
7. Be realistic about finances. Sometimes the sibling who's close by needs to start spending the parents' savings to pay for caregivers and other expenses. "The sibling who comes home says, 'What happened to the money?'" says Turner. "'Why can't we place mom and dad in this luxurious facility?'"
8. Take steps to make your own kids less likely to fight over you some day. Learn from your experience with your aging parents and your siblings, and make life easier on the next generation. Write (or re-write) your will. Consider getting long-term care insurance. Tell your kids your wishes for when you're older — whether you'd like to stay at home as long as possible or move to an assisted-living facility, and whether you'd like to be buried or cremated. After all, you don't want your kids to argue about you before — or after — you've died.