Common Causes of Family Tensions and Disagreements

To avoid blowouts, it is helpful to recognize common disagreements that may occur so you can keep the focus where it belongs — on your loved one’s care.

Bother and sister having a disagreement about Family matters

Caring for aging parents is complicated. When your siblings are involved, caregiving can become even more complex.

“If you get two siblings, you’re going to have conflict,” says Shelley Phoenix, a Sales Specialist for Highgate Senior Living.

It is usually not because your brother does not care or your sister thinks you should be able to handle caregiving on your own. Typically, family tension erupts because your family has not had to deal with the practical, emotional, and financial issues that come with caregiving before. Without realizing it, past conflicts, clashing personalities, tough decisions, and unequal contributions can cause more conflict than they normally would.

To avoid family blowouts, it is helpful to recognize common disagreements that may occur so you can keep the focus where it belongs — on your loved one’s care. Here is a look at five common causes of family tensions and disagreements:

1. Differing Ideas About What a Parent Needs

One of the most common issues among families is when siblings do not see their parent’s care needs the same way.

“I’ve seen situations where there’s a daughter who lives in town with Mom and tries to help her out with things,” says Robyn Grant, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at National Consumer Voice for Long-Term Care, which advocates for quality care and services in any long-term care setting. “She sees the level of assistance that Mom needs. The brother lives out of state and comes in once a year, so Mom rallies because she wants to put up a good front — and she’s delighted to see him — so he sees something different than the sibling who is there on a day-to-day basis.”

2. Unequal Caregiving Responsibilities

Families do not often discuss caregiving roles and responsibilities. What usually happens is the child who lives closest to Mom will help out with small things. Then, before anyone really notices, that person has assumed the role of the primary caregiver.

This can lead to a lot of conflict. Perhaps the primary caregiver assumes they do not need to ask for help, and maybe other family members do not offer.

“A lot of times when there are siblings involved, one says, ‘Mom can stay at home,’ and the other says, ‘No, something has to change because I’m the one doing all the work,’” says Kathleen Williams, Executive Director of Highgate at Temecula.

Ultimately, the main caregiver is left feeling resentful.

3. Caregiver Guilt

Guilt is an ever-present emotion for many family caregivers for a variety of reasons.

“Families don’t want to be the one to actually say, ‘Mom, you have to move,’” Williams says. “It’s hard to step into that role. It is guilt-ridden.”

LaTresh Walker, Healthcare Director at Highgate at Temecula adds: “It’s never easy to place a loved one in a long-term care facility. There is a lot of guilt. You question yourself — Am I doing the right thing? Should I have taken them home with me? — even though in the long term, it is the best for your loved one.”

Shelley Phoenix, a Sales Specialist for Highgate Senior Living, says she sometimes hears long-distance siblings criticizing the care the in-town sibling is providing — Why aren’t you doing this? Don’t do it like that. — even when they do not have a real concern. “It’s usually guilt,” she says.

4. Figuring Out Financials

For many families, figuring out how to pay for a family member’s care can be challenging, especially if the parents do not have the funds to pay themselves.

“Sometimes the one who is doing the work isn’t the one handling the money,” Williams says, which can cause conflict when making decisions about where the parent should live or whether they can afford a housekeeper.

In Phoenix’s experiences, family conflicts are rarely just about money, though:

“You try to figure out what’s truly important to that family. Nine times out of 10, they’re going to say cost. But when you dig down deeper, it’s never about that. Money is a crutch. Usually, it’s about something going on with them, and usually, that’s guilt: ‘I can’t be here, so I’m going to blame you.’ ‘I’m overwhelmed, so I’m going to blame you.’”

5. Resistant Parents

Sometimes, sibling tension is actually exacerbated by the parent. “You need to get to a point where your siblings agree on what services and assistance are needed, but you also need to work with your parents and where they are,” Grant says.

Maybe Dad is telling each child a different version of the story about his week, which can cause conflict and confusion among siblings. A parent who resists care can also be divisive.

“When Mom is adamant she’s going to die at home and one sibling supports her and the other says she needs to go to an assisted living community or nursing home, it can be very stressful,” Grant says.

To prevent these types of conflicts, Walker recommends returning to the question: What is best for Mom or Dad?

“It’s so important for the family to be on the same page,” she says. “Otherwise, the elder doesn’t get the care they need. It’s not about the siblings. Put your differences aside. Stop and look and see what’s best for Mom or Dad.”

The best way to do that? A family meeting.

No matter how complex your family dynamics may be, it is possible to establish consensus. For a guide to getting everyone on the same page, including how to hold a family meeting, download How to Manage Challenging Family Dynamics When Making Long-Term Care Decisions.

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