As Baby Boomers’ parents age and become ill and frail, the potential for conflicts between siblings over decisions to be made concerning a parent’s care greatly increases.

Once a parent needs care due to physical or mental incapacity, there are great demands made upon children to step up and take charge.

According to the Canadian Caregiver Coalition at least 2.85 million Canadians serve as unpaid caregivers to relatives while simultaneously juggling their own work, family and household responsibilities.

In previous generations, it was not uncommon for a parent to move in with a child. That was fine when there were one income families and someone was at home during the day to look after the parent. Now, with most couples both spouses are working and the stress of looking after a frail parent is even greater.

If there is more than one child, then at least there is the opportunity to share duties. However, today children are often living in different cities from their parents and it is not always practical to rely upon everyone to pitch in. Even if everyone lives in the same city as the parent, family dynamics being what they are, invariably one sibling may end up assuming the lion’s share of responsibility.

An online post from quotes Francine Russo who has done research on siblings and care giving. Russo has found that in 90 per cent of the families one sibling shoulders more- if not most of the caregiving burden.

I was at a funeral recently for a mother who died leaving two surviving children, a son and daughter. Both children delivered loving and eloquent eulogies for their mother. However, it was interesting to listen to the daughter mention that she had personally inspected a dozen nursing homes before having their mother move into the facility. I am certain that her brother contributed as well but this was an example of one sibling taking charge.

This of course has the potential to breed resentment as the “take-charge” sibling gives up on her social life and even ignores her own spouse and children as a result. The sibling’s business or job may also suffer as a result and the sibling may also become ill.

There are not only tensions over time but money. Siblings might not agree how to spend a parent’s money. Should the parent be put in a nursing home or should the parent remain at home with paid caregivers? If there are not enough funds, should the children contribute their own funds? (In Ontario children have a duty to support their parents).

If one sibling takes over the lion share of the care or has the parent move in, should that sibling be compensated? By whom? Should the sibling get a larger portion of the estate?

Obviously, each family’s situation is unique. To avoid or minimize conflicts. Russo suggests that the key is communication. Ideally, the siblings and parents will enter into a dialogue to ascertain the parent’s wishes before the parent is incapable of participating in the discussion. Personal meetings and phone calls work better than emails.

Siblings need to understand that caring for a parent is stressful and that much energy and time and resources will be involved to keep things moving as smoothly as possible.

If necessary, get the help of a social worker or family therapist to try and provide information and objective advice.

Sometimes outside professionals such as a mediator or eldercare consultant can help get the difficult conversations started.

The October 2011 edition of One to One Insights, the CIBC Wood Gundy newsletter contains an interview with Debbie Gilbert, founder of Toronto based eldercare consulting practice Generations . Gilbert recommends making a care plan. She asks families questions designed to help them explore priorities and possibilities:

  • Which care tasks are most important to the caregiver to provide?
  • Are there tasks that other family members can take on?
  • Have community and government funded service providers or privately- hired caregivers been considered?
  • How can the caregiver schedule regular breaks or perhaps a much needed vacation?
  • What specific support and strategies are needed for long distance caregiving?

Working with an eldercare consultant can help caregivers and their family deal with the stress and potential conflicts involved in caring for an elderly parent. As Gilbert says:

“The care years can be overwhelming. You don’t have to make this journey alone”.