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Family disagreements when caring for an elderly parent

December 30, 2015 | Heather Shannon
caring for an elderly parent

As our parents age and need more assistance, it’s often up to us, their adult children, to step in and help.

With that, though, often comes disagreement about what’s best for parents when they need assistance with day-to-day functioning or become seriously ill.

UCI Health SeniorHealth Center geriatrician Dr. Sonia Sehgal says most of these disagreements can be resolved or averted altogether with just one simple thing: communication.

“The most important thing in avoiding discord is open communication and really understanding and respecting what the parent wants so the kids can advocate for the parent when the parent isn’t able to do that.”

Here are some frequent sources of conflict when children are helping an elderly parent, and how to resolve disagreements — or avoid them entirely.

One child is more involved than the others

“One sibling may be more involved for a variety of reasons: he or she isn’t working and has more time, or maybe one lives closer to the parent. Sometimes one child is just more overbearing.”

Sehgal suggests that the siblings sit down and communicate about what each person can reasonably contribute and divide the responsibilities accordingly.

“One child may be able to provide money, while another will do laundry, cooking and shopping. Maybe another will handle finances. I’ve seen it done many ways.”

However it’s done, Sehgal says, it should be an open conversation in which everyone agrees.

Finances are extremely limited

When money is tight, it is a difficult and stressful situation for families seeking care for their elderly loved ones.

“In situations like that,” Sehgal says, “children will have to provide a lot of the care themselves.”

That may mean quitting a job to provide around-the-clock care for an aging parent.

Sehgal suggests looking into community resources that might be available, such as an all-inclusive care program.

“The elderly can go see their doctor, have a physical, eat a meal and have meaningful social interactions,” she says. “It relieves some of the caregiver burden, and families know their loved one is in a safe environment.”

Sehgal also recommends that when money is an issue, the family come together to work out what each person can reasonably contribute or sacrifice to help.

A parent is sick and there’s no advance directive

When a parent is unable to express his or her wishes and no advance directive is in place, the adult children need to have a conversation.

“Talk about what your parent would want. Try to keep your own desires for your parent’s longevity or your own beliefs out of it.”

To reduce confusion and miscommunication, Sehgal suggests that the family appoint one sibling to communicate with the healthcare team.

“For doctors and nurses, it’s very confusing if three or four people are trying to discuss aspects of care.”

It’s more than a disagreement

Sometimes, despite efforts to communicate and resolve issues, the family just can’t resolve their differences.

Arguments can be about:

  • Finances
  • Medical philosophies
  • Long-simmering resentments between siblings

If the parent is aware of the discord between the children, Sehgal suggests that the parent try to resolve it by appointing one child as spokesperson.

If the disagreements are about who can contribute help, a care manager may be able to step in and help.

Care managers often have a social work or nursing background. They will:

  • Take the patient to doctor’s appointments
  • Make sure there is enough food
  • Go shopping for the parent
  • Act as a middleperson to communicate with the family

Care managers, who charge a fee for their services, can be a great way to relieve some of the caregiving duties, Sehgal says.

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