Sharing the responsibility of care: a sibling’s guide

Caring for an ageing parent is a reality that millions of Australians manage on a daily basis. For many, sharing this care among siblings can be a difficult task, especially when handling sensitive matters that come with the role.

Cindy Lee is all too familiar with discussing the responsibility of care of her 78-year-old mother between her siblings.

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Cindy's mum, Josephine, requires 24-hour care but prefers living at home as opposed to an aged care facility

“I had to pass care onto my sister because we have small children,” says Lee. “At the time, when mum was living with us, they weren’t actually in school. I run a business — and my husband has two business — so we had a very hectic lifestyle, which was very, very hard for an elderly person to cope with, just being shuffled from pillar to post. So my sister took over the care and mum’s been very comfortable with her.”

Over the years, their mum’s energy levels and mobility slowly began to deteriorate to a point where she couldn’t be left alone.

“She has something called grand mal seizures,” explains Lee. “She doesn’t feel confident staying by herself — even if I was to run up to the shops for five minutes, that still makes her very unsettled. I think, just emotionally and mentally, she needs people with her all the time … so it’s a 24-hour role.”

According to Carers Australia, there are close to three million unpaid carers in Australia and almost all primary carers are a family member. The replacement cost, or value of that unpaid care is $1.1 billion per week.

“Being a caregiver can be quite isolating because you’re quite selfless, you’re giving up your life and your needs to help someone else,” says Rebecca Parsons, Caregiver at Home Instead.

Parsons was the primary carer for her mother and her grandmother before becoming a paid carer three years ago.

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Parsons says taking time out for yourself is important for your overall wellbeing

“When mum was palliative, that was tough, so I actually needed help. I’ve also got an autistic son, so I was trying to look after my mum and deal with family as well. So after that, I went back to TAFE and just thought, I could help other people.”

While providing care for elderly parents can be a fulfilling, rewarding experience, Parsons says that it’s important to always take time out for yourself.

“When you’re a caregiver, it’s selfless … but I think if you can take an hour out or a half an hour, just for yourself — just to retune, reenergise, process — I think that’s really important,” Parsons advises.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, and keep your sense of humour,” she adds. “You always have to laugh. Even if it’s a really bad situation or you’re having a bad day, just try and keep a sense of humour. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps you going, otherwise you cry.”

The importance of dividing care among siblings
Dividing the caring workload with your siblings can allow respite for the primary carer, but it is also important to create an open dialogue in your family about your parent’s situation and the carer’s needs. This may mean putting aside differences for the care of your family member to make the process easier and more pleasant for everyone involved.

“Communication is just so important when it comes to dealing with this,” says Lee. “My sister is always keeping us up-to-date … my brother and I try not to interfere with the decisions that she makes day-to-day about mum’s care, but we’re there to help support her.”

Top tips for siblings caring for ageing parents:

Talk to your parents — know and understand their needs.
Do your homework and plan ahead — explore the types of services your parent needs and plan how you will share the load.
Be flexible — expecting or demanding an equal share of caregiving will (in most cases) not be possible, especially when your life and that of your siblings changes overtime. Take into account each other’s circumstances; often appointing one family member as the main carer and point of contact is the best option.
Be honest — no one’s a mind reader so speak up when you need help.
Have family meetings — allow for open and assertive conversations while respecting the rights and feelings of others. By keeping everyone on the same page, and sharing information and updates, you can alleviate anxiety other siblings may be experiencing.


How to work through differences
Caregiving is often a new and challenging transition for a family, and many emotions can arise with the responsibility. Take time to step back from the situation, calm down, and focus on the concerns at hands — always keeping in mind what is in the best interest of your parent. Seeking an objective opinion, such as that of a health professional, may help. Essentially, fostering positive communication and support for one another can make the caregiving journey easier.

Ultimately, the role can bring siblings closer together. “We love our mum,” says Lee. “That sense of caring for someone that you love, that feeling, that’s what we get out of it. My mum’s an amazing woman.”

Show your support for unpaid carers before the end of National Carers Week (October 15-21). Visit www.carersweek.com.au to say thank you and show carers they are valued.

Other helpful resources

Are you a caregiver? What advice would you offer to someone talking on this role?

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Image credits: Cindy Lee / Studio 4 Photography, The Photography Business.