Caught in a Tug of War: Sibling Rivarly in Caregiving.

By: Mary Ellen Nessmith, MPA

July 2015


As we know, caring for an aging parent or relative is not something we are always prepared to do. It can add a great deal of stress to a person’s life. Having siblings or family members share in this care can provide great support, but when siblings or family members disagree about how to care for a loved one, things can certainly become more complicated. 

Why does caring for a parent bring out sibling contention?

Sibling discord can occur for many reasons and manifest itself in several different ways.  A few examples of classic sibling caregiving issues:


one child feels he/she is providing all the hands on care

disagreements over what is best for parent

difference of opinion over finances

• clashes over who should have legal and medical power of attorney 


Often times working together as a family can bring up past issues, sibling dynamics, parental favoritism or perception of parental favoritism, and denial of parents’ condition. Most families experience some level of disagreement during this time. How can families prevent disagreements and work together?


“A 2006 study from the Urban Institute found that only 14 percent of frail older adults received paid home care and a National Family Caregivers Association survey found that 76 percent of family caregivers say they don't receive help from other family members.  In most cases, the family caregiver is a woman who is middle-aged or older.  In almost all cases, the caregiver is the sibling who takes on most of the responsibility for parent care, from prime decision making to hands-on tasks. Geographic distance, family history, work and family obligations, and tight finances can all lead to one sibling bearing the brunt of caregiving. “(McLeod, B.W. March 2015).  It is critical in the success of caring for a parent to communicate and work together as a family. 



Here are several suggestions on how to better work together:


  • 1. Call a family meeting: Try to do this before a crisis a crisis occurs.  Have this meeting in person if
  • possible or have all siblings & relevant partners present.
  • 2. Communication is vital:  Keep each other informed.  Parents often share different information with different children.  Have a weekly update email, share a calendar with all appointments or find a system that works for your family.
  • 3. Do as much talking as listening: Let your needs and concerns be known, but also grant the courtesy to the other members of your family.  Be open to other people’s needs and suggestions.


  • 4. Be specific about what you want: Ask for a specific task and explain your needs.  Many caregivers will broadly ask for help but not follow throw with a detailed task request.  This can be difficult for a person who is unsure what to offer or how to help. 


  • 5. Divide up tasks: Split duties by ability.  Feel free to include anyone.  A sibling who lives far away could offer to help financially with monetary support or plan a trip to visit parent to give the primary caregiver a break.  Discuss what is reasonable for all parties involved.


  • 6. Do not expect total equality: Most families have one primary caregiver who provides the majority of the care.  This is usually volunteered and taken on by one person.  Be reasonable with siblings about what they are providing and offering.


  • 7. Utilize professional help and expert opinions:  Professional Care Managers often help families who live in different locations or need help mediating a family meeting.  Utilize Elder Law Attorneys to help with wills and financial/advance directives planning.  Considering working with a mediator if necessary.



Web sites to help when working with family members and caregiving:

Locate a Professional Care Manager or Aging Life Care Professional

Emory Professional Care Management

Emory Caregiver Support Program

Emory Care Consultation

National Association of Elder Law Attorneys

Elder Mediation




McLeod, B. (2015). Caregiving and Siblings. Retrieved from


Yosuico, I. (2012). Negotiating Senior Caregiving with Siblings, 10 Steps for making it manageable. Retrieved from