Thoughtful Thor’s Day: Family dynamics when caring for an elderly parent.

Thoughtful Thor’s Day

Lately I find myself pondering family dynamics. Why do seemingly healthy families implode when it becomes necessary to care for an elderly, ailing parent? I understand if the parent needs to be placed in an institution because their needs cannot be met at home but I’ve seen so many instances of siblings verbally brawling with each other when it comes time to arrange such things.

I’ve observed that in many cases parental care falls on one child. It is usually the child who lives closet to the parent but that is not always the case. The adult child may still have responsibilities to spouse or children that must be met and now caring for a parent has been added to these burdens. The other siblings may visit or take the parent out for a few hours (or even a few days) but the majority of the day to day care falls on one sibling. The others siblings often undermine the caregiver by intervening in conflicts between child/caregiver and parent. For example the caregiver may not want the parent to eat certain foods because they caused digestive issues but one of the siblings will ignore this and tell the parent he/she doesn’t need to listen to you. It’s frustrating, infuriating and exhausting for the caregiver.

Then when the parent passes away or needs to be institutionalized, all the arrangements fall to the caregiver. If finances are involved then all bets are off – it’s clobbering time. Placing a parent in a long-term care facility is expensive. Even the least expensive facilities will put a serious dent in a family’s budget. That can quickly become a bone of contention between the siblings who want their parent to have the best care possible but can’t afford the rates.

And then, when the parent finally passes away, the division of the estate becomes a battle royale. Each child squares off in one corner and prepares to fight to the death for what they feel is their rightful inheritance. The fact that the majority of the burden of care for the parent has fallen on one child is erased from the memory banks as the other children scratch and claw for their piece of the pie. So many people do no leave a will so the “estate’ goes into probate and adds another layer of confusion of legal interference to the situation. By the time the dust has cleared the siblings are no longer speaking, the caregiver feels betrayed, unappreciated and angry and the only ones who walk away with more money than they had coming into it are the lawyers.

I’m in a situation that will probably follow this pattern some day. Hubby has an older brother who hasn’t spoken to their mother in 5 years and hasn’t seen her since their father’s funeral in 2005. To be perfectly honest I’m not even sure where he’s living right now. I’m assuming he’s still alive because I’m sure if something had happened to him one of his ex-wives would tell us – then again maybe not. When the mom-in-law finally breathes her last, I have no doubt we will receive a call from him seeking his inheritance. That should prove fun.

I wonder what is it about these situations that brings out the worst in families. Instead of working together to ensure the burden is shared, so many people undermine or denigrate the caregiver’s efforts. The other family members act as if it’s the caregiver’s duty to take on this burden. It also seems to bring out a lot of latent, unresolved issues such as parental favoritism, sibling rivalry and just plain old jealousy. In a time when we like to claim it takes a village to raise a child I’d like to point out that it takes one to care for an elderly parent too. If a village or tribe isn’t available it would be nice if one could count on one’s siblings to help. Unfortunately in my experience that is the exception rather than the rule.

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