When it comes to taking care of a parent, there is strength in numbers. Siblings working together to provide a satisfying quality of life for their aging or infirm mother or father can make all the difference in the world. However, we all know from experience that it's not always easy to keep things harmonious with those closest to us, especially when it involves money and mortality. Disagreements, resentments, and stress can wreak havoc on our relationships with our brothers or sisters and lead to worse outcomes for everyone involved.
Ann Koerner, CEO and founder of National Care Advisors, an organization that provides advocacy, consulting, and problem-solving services for individuals and families seeking help with caregiving needs, says "It's important to remember that what most parents want more than anything is to leave behind a functioning family relationship so you can continue to enjoy holidays and all the wonderful things that a solid family unit celebrates together.”
To help provide the best and most thorough care for our parents and make sure we don't break the familial bonds in the process, it's imperative that everyone—parents and siblings—get on the same page as early as possible. With thoughtful planning, good communication, and clear and unambiguous goals that set everyone's expectations appropriately, it is possible for families to strengthen their relationships through what might seem like an especially fraught and challenging experience.
Don't wait—start planning early
Koerner says that the process of assuming responsibility for an aging family member's day-to-day needs can happen so gradually you may not realize it has happened until you're already in the thick of it. "Things often evolve slowly,” she says, "and without a plan, responsibility tends to fall on whoever happens to be nearby, not necessarily who is the best suited to take it on. Without a clear division of roles and who's going to do what, there can often be discord among siblings.”
That's why she recommends sitting down as early as possible, well before the need arises, to hash out roles, responsibilities, and expectations among everyone involved, including the parent. This can also help to avoid the most proximate sibling automatically shouldering the burden, which can lead to resentment or burnout.
It's easy to underestimate the scope and cost of care needed for an aging adult. A caregiver must wear many hats: They may need to act as a nurse, helping to take care of immediate medical and self-care needs; as a financial manager, ensuring there are adequate resources and that bills are paid and money is appropriately budgeted; as a property manager, performing maintenance and upkeep on the home; and as a personal assistant, making appointments and coordinating schedules. It's often more than one person can reasonably handle.
Begin by assessing the potential scope of services needed and the associated costs. If, for example, an aging parent prefers to remain at home, the costs and preparation necessary to ensure the home is safe and outfitted with the necessary upgrades are likely different than costs of an assisted living facility. Aging at home may also require increased care costs if assistance is needed 24 hours a day. Understanding a parent's goals and desires are necessary to enable the family to determine how associated expenses will be met.
"It is critical that families engage their financial planning professional at this stage to develop a comprehensive plan to help ensure the aging family member can sustain the standard of living and quality of care that they desire,” says Michael Christy, a vice president on Fidelity's Advanced Planning team. "That could be accomplished in several different ways, including self-funding or leveraging a long-term care insurance policy.” In most cases, however, it will involve a combination of many different available resources.
Families should also assess the potential caregiver's ability to absorb added costs and expenses. For example, one sibling may need to retire early to devote substantial time to care for their aging parent. Losing income could have a significant impact on the caregiver's own retirement plans.
Koerner notes that in her experience families often miss out on accessing important benefits that could be used to pay for long-term care—perhaps they overlooked an insurance policy or aren't aware of how to take advantage of available Medicare benefits. "Those are the kind of things a professional can help avoid,” says Koerner.
After understanding the potential expenses and developing a financial plan, Koerner recommends that siblings draft written job descriptions that address what each of them will be responsible for so there's clarity and agreement around who does what and what, if any, financial commitment is expected. Tasks can be divided up based on each sibling's preference and ability; for example, a sibling who lives far from the parent may elect to take on responsibility for managing their finances, which can be done remotely, or a sibling with a medical background may become the point person for interacting with doctors or supervising home health aides.
This is also a good time to come to a consensus with the parent around what will happen once they pass away. Drafting a will or laying out clear, unambiguous instructions about what the parent's wishes are regarding their properties, assets, and heirlooms can help to avoid a potential blowup between siblings when the time comes.
Communicate and have empathy
If you're the sibling who's on the ground, providing day-to-day care and acting as the primary caregiver, make sure to keep your more distant siblings in the loop so there are no surprises about what your parent is experiencing and what type of support you may need. Communicating what's happening to your siblings will ensure that there are no surprises or misunderstandings about your parent's capabilities or your own capacity to handle the responsibilities you have agreed to take on.
If you're the sibling that isn't located nearby, be proactive about checking in on your parent and your caregiving sibling but be careful not to be too much of a backseat driver. Have some empathy for what they are going through and recognize that tough decisions will need to be made. Koerner says that cleanliness, of the home and even personal cleanliness, can be a sore spot as children may have a hard time adapting to changes in their aging parent's habits. Rather than being critical about something you may view as a shortcoming, offer to assist, if possible, so as not to create a point of tension with the caregiving sibling.
For particularly challenging or awkward conversations, Koerner again suggests bringing in a professional. "Sometimes, when you need to have a difficult conversation, it's good to have a third party present to facilitate and maybe even be the bad guy,” she says.
Be flexible and remember, things will change
When it comes to long-term care, the main thing to remember is that the situation will always be evolving. Your parent's health, financial circumstances, and day-to-day needs will certainly change as time goes on. But you and your siblings may also have life changes that require you to revisit how you engage with your parent or one another. This means that you need to be prepared to evolve your plan, to ensure that it's still providing the framework necessary to satisfy everyone involved and keep those familial bonds strong.
"You should have a dynamic plan that's reviewed annually with a financial professional you trust and your legal counsel, who can help make changes if they are necessary,” says Koerner.