Tips for avoiding sibling rivalry when caring for aging parents

By Valerie
July 6, 2012

I’m delighted to have Frances Ferguson, a registered clinical counsellor in the Comox Valley, offer strategies for siblings to work together in caring for aging parents.

Frances brings over 15 years of experience helping individuals and couples to solve problems and make decisions, improve communication and set and reach personal goals.

Fifteen years ago, Cheryl, a single mom with three young kids, stepped up to the plate to care for her mother, who had suffered a mild brain injury. Other family members had full lives of their own.

For years, her sister and brother each took their mom for two weeks in the summertime, feeling they had done their part. Now that their mother is elderly and decisions have to be made, the other siblings want to be in charge, and they are fighting for their share of her estate.

Accusations flew … harsh words were spoken … resentment grew … and for a year now, they have not spoken at all.

Sibling rivalry can be brutal.

The fights are no longer about who’s doing the dishes or who gets a larger piece of pie? They’re now about who looks after finances, who decides whether to pull the plug, and how to split up what’s left after they’re gone.

There’s a huge re-emergence of sibling rivalry because when we see that our parents’ time is limited, all the unmet needs we’ve had resurface — to be loved, approved of, forgiven, or feel as important or smart as your brother or sister. We revert to outdated roles, and it’s generally not conscious.

Here are some tips on getting through:

Family meetings: Our parents are a family responsibility. It’s best to get everyone together to talk, so everyone feels involved and able to provide their input. That includes siblings, step-siblings, and in-laws. Everyone has a role, and something to offer.

If you can’t do this on your own, consider an outside resource such as a family friend, financial specialist, or other professional to facilitate the conversation.

Be there: Siblings need to prop up the main caregiver. Do what you can.

Know what you want: If you’re the main caregiver, be clear. Do you want a sibling to relieve you at some point? Do you want whoever can afford it to hire someone to come in and help you? Or do you actually want to be in charge of everything, but want your siblings to thank you?

Be explicit: Make up a list of all the specific things that need to be done and ask people to sign up for tasks they’re able to take on. Some people can’t do personal care, but can hire a house cleaner, drive, or help with errands.

Avoid talking when angry: Speak up about issues before you’re peeved.

Share financials: The sibling given financial authority should share details about expenses with the others, even when not asked. Being transparent helps to build trust.

Be part of the solution: If you find yourself in conflict with a family member, step back and get some perspective. Consider your role in the conflict, and ask yourself if you’re acting out an old family role or resentment. Seek support and insight.

Helpful reading: They’re Your Parents Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy by Francine Russo.

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For more information about Frances and her practice, please visit her at or reach her by telephone at 250-871-7303

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC