Part II in Series: Surviving the Sandwich Generation When Siblings Can't or Won't Help
By Tom Wright, Edelman Direct Advisor
Read Part I: The Sandwich Generation
This is the second of a two part story exploring the Sandwich Generation: those who provide financial support to aging parents while raising young children — and trying to save for their own retirement at the same time. Last email update’s column explained how to work with your siblings and your parents to ensure that parents’ needs are met.
Caring for an adult family member and your own children simultaneously is a financial and emotional challenge, as my colleague Sean Wintz explained in the last issue. Despite the difficulties Sean faced — taking a leave of absence from work to help care for his mother after she had a stroke — his story ultimately had a happy ending as he and his siblings worked together to find the best solution for ensuring that his mother got all the help she needed.
Unfortunately, families don’t always work together like that. In fact, just one-third of adult caregivers receive help from their siblings, according to a study from Clark University.
Sometimes the reason siblings or other family members can’t pitch in is benign; they and other relatives often live thousands of miles away or are too young or impoverished themselves to be of any assistance.
Of course, in many families it’s not geography or resources that cause conflict — it’s family tension that has been simmering for years. Perceived slights over who the favorite was or who got the most attention or financial aid can bubble to the surface when it’s time to talk about who will take care of Mom or Dad. Family members can devolve to the worst version of their teenage selves by bickering, throwing tantrums or simply ignoring everyone else. And that’s before we consider the input of the people you and your brothers and sisters married.
In other cases, children are hesitant to help out because they don’t have the best relationship with their parents. Maybe one child has always been very close with a parent, while another has had rocky relations or has been (or felt like) the “problem child.” Even though everyone grew up in the same family, they may not have the same feelings about Mom and Dad.
Regardless of how family members get along, one person= usually emerges (either deliberately or inadvertently) as the primary caregiver. But if the rest of the family abdicates involvement, allowing that individual to handle all the parent’s needs, problems can occur. The caregiver can develop feelings of animosity because others aren’t helping, while the others can become dissatisfied with the caregiver’s decisions and actions — which antagonizes the caregiver, creating a vicious cycle. Ill feelings aren’t limited to siblings, either. They can actually develop between the caregiver and the parents receiving care — resentment, embarrassment, even jealousy. And the spouses (who are, after all, “just in-laws”) can create issues as well.
Things get complicated when one or more siblings live far away. Feeling inept due to distance, they may demand updates or harshly question, criticize or judge the actions of the primary caregiver, who already feels he or she is doing his or her best to balance family, work and a social life with the needs of a parent.
So what do you do when you find yourself involved with family members who either can’t or won’t help, or whose interference (however well-meaning) is disrupting the needs of the family? Here are some tips to guide you.
The caregiver should serve only if he or she wants to. Guilt, coercion or the apparent absence of alternatives must never force anyone into accepting this role. Caregivers suffer significant reductions in income, damage to their careers, impairments to their own health, and relationship problems with their own spouses and children, according to a 2009 AARP study. In the end, the problem is ultimately that of the parent; no one should be made to feel that a parent’s problem belongs to anyone else.
Caregivers must never expect or demand gratitude; nevertheless, they should receive it from the parents and other family members. When a family member willingly and selflessly volunteers to be a caregiver, he or she should do so for personal reasons, not for external reward or recognition. But the risks and costs incurred by the caregiver and his or her own family make it appropriate for siblings and the parents themselves to convey appreciation. When everyone keeps the caregiver’s sacrifices in mind, other relationship problems can be avoided.
Communicate. Talk often with your parents and siblings about how things are going. Caregivers should report if they are feeling trapped, overwhelmed or taken advantage of. If siblings aren’t helping, caregivers should talk about it.
Siblings have specific roles. Even though a brother or sister might not be the primary caregiver, he or she may be able to help. By working together, chores can be distributed, helping everyone feel involved and reducing the risk that one sibling might become overwhelmed. Suggestions might include transportation to appointments, household cleaning or maintenance, cooking or managing financial and legal affairs.
The caregiver is contributing time; the siblings and parents should therefore contribute money. Siblings can help pay for gas or groceries. If a caregiver quits a job or suffers a loss of income, the parents should consider paying the caregiver for his or her services (perhaps even signing a personal services contract) or leaving him or her a greater share of the inheritance as compensation for his or her hours of toil.
Focus on relationships. Everyone in the family must strive to avoid acting petty. Caring for aging parents can bring everyone in the family closer, and it can create the most heartwarming and memorable years of everyone’s lives.
Seek outside help if family resources are exceeded. Remember that lifeguards are taught to save themselves first if there is danger of drowning. Don’t let your own life be destroyed out of your desire to care for your parents. Instead, seek community help. Talk with neighbors and your church, or contact the U.S. Administration on Aging at www.aoa.gov for information and assistance.
These guidelines can help sandwiched children, parents, siblings and family make the best of their situation.