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On Being the Away Sibling

Posted by Colby Kinser on

Last Saturday, we hosted an Elder Care seminar, with 11 different providers giving overviews of their specialty within the elder care space. The content was rich and every attendee sought out one or more providers to find out more in-depth information.

I was able to start the time off with a quick bit of advice on being the "away sibling." Often times in elder care, one (or a few) of the siblings is the local sibling, and therefore has more responsibility for direct caregiving. That means the "away siblings" have a different role, and there's certainly a disparity of burden. This can lead to bickering, fighting, or guilt feelings. I've seen this happen in the previous generation of my own family.

The situation with my own parents is that I’m the local sibling. My brothers are the away siblings. They want to help, but can get frustrated because it's hard to find something helpful to do from 1000 miles away. I took the posture early on that even if my brothers did nothing to help, I’d still be OK. I've seen too much strife in other situations, and I'm not going to allow someone else's choices control my contentment. We have been blessed in our family, however - there has been no fighting or real disagreements, and my brothers have done whatever they can to help.

My position gives me some ideas that might be helpful for the away siblings:

Don’t keep apologizing for what you’re not - but be really good at being the away siblings. You're not the local sibling. Don't try to be. Don't feel guilty for not being that (unless, of course, you've intentionally run from some responsibilities!). Don't try to be a mini-version of a local sibling. You're the away sibling - be really good at that.

The best thing you can do for your parents is to support the siblings who are local. This is your part - lifting up those who carry the most burden. Be really good that. Be attentive to them ... and dare I say it ... be as much or more attentive to them than to your parents. You'll end up benefiting your parents most this way (in most circumstances).

Don’t offer unsolicited, out-of-context advice. When the local siblings tell you their stories, they haven’t told you the whole story, so you likely can't know the best answer. You don't have enough information to know, even if it seems obvious. If they ask for advice, great! Give it! At least ask for permission before offering any suggestions or ideas. Be sensitive: you may have the seemingly obvious right answer that the local sibling hasn’t seen, and it’s frustrating for them to work hard to get 99% of the stuff right and you pop in like a Fairy Godmother with the right answer for the 1%.

Listen, listen, listen.  The local siblings need to vent, share, and process. They very likely need listeners more than they need fixers. Not every statement is a call to action or a statement of how things are all the time - it’s how things are in that moment. It may be different tomorrow. (Aging parents are what I call "moving targets" - they change rapidly, and so we need to keep adjusting to their new states.) The local siblings need to know that you know, at least a part of what they're feeling.

Realize that not all costs fit onto a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet can help share expenses for stuff like buying a new lift chair, but don’t think it captures your fair portion of the costs. The costs may include: gas, extra meals, hospital cafeterias, time, emotional energy, and so on. So, go above and beyond - pay more than your share of the spreadsheet. Of course, you have the added expense of airfare or gas for roadtrips, but at least realize the local sibling is paying a lot of different kinds of costs that an accountant wouldn't catch.

Away siblings have some advantages. You have a unique perspective. The local siblings see the trees, and you can see the forest. So, be really good at seeing the forest and allow the local siblings to see the trees. Don't try to swap roles. You have a timelapse exposure - you can notice changes in your parents (or in your sibling!) that the local siblings are too close to see. You're able to take your sibling’s pulse and see how they are doing. You have the advantage of seeing when it’s time to pay for more help, which is often hard for the local sibling to see or admit.

Visit your parents ... and your siblings apart from your parents! Take your siblings out to dinner, your treat. I don’t care if you had to pay for airfare. Give them time with you without having to pay attention to the parents in the room. And don't spend the entire dinner talking about your folks.

Not all of these ideas are right for every situation. Perhaps some of these will spark ideas on how to be excellent away siblings.

Tags: care, elder, family

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