The experience of working with my many siblings as we attempted to make the “right” care decisions with and for my mother left me humbled and gave me a new appreciation for the challenges we face. It’s a lot easier to “talk the talk” than “walk the walk”.
Our mother’s physical and mental health was steadily declining. She was taken to “experts” who advised a care setting that represented increased safety to some in our family and more restrictiveness to others.
How did we resolve our sibling differences amicably? Here’s what I learned that I think is worth passing on.
Don’t underestimate the emotional undertones in family discussions and decisions. I was surprised by the intensity of my own emotional reactions, which seemed out of proportion to events. It became clear that sometimes I was reacting as a vulnerable girl rather than an adult.
Many adults have unmet desires to be approved or to be considered “good enough” by parents and siblings. By taking the time to recognize the source of my feelings, I was able to slide into a more mature mode of interacting with my family and to acknowledge my feelings without holding others responsible. Having done so helped me to understand that some of my siblings were influenced as well by feelings that arose from long ago. The moral: Give yourself some slack and cut plenty for others.
Don’t underestimate personal communication. While email, voicemail and text messages can be wonderful tools in keeping everyone on the same page regarding facts, these tools are less effective, and maybe even harmful, in resolving emotional issues. The crucial nuances that make communication effective, such as the tone of voice or the ability to get an immediate reaction, are not available on email.
In the case of my family, I was angered by some of the email I received from siblings and felt my mother’s condition was misrepresented by some and misunderstood by others. I simmered quietly for a few days and nights, fearful that valued sibling relationships were disintegrating. The conflicts were not cleared up until phone conversations took place to “sort things out”. The moral: Make a personal connection by telephone, or if possible by meeting in person to clear the air and sweep out misperceptions.
Don’t underestimate the importance of tolerating differences. With most decisions, there are no absolute rights or wrongs. Caring people come to very different decisions. They also often come to make those decisions in different ways and from different perspectives.
Some individuals feel the new to review information in great detail and become intimately involved in making decisions. Others are glad to simply receive general updates and will delegate decisions to one or another person. Some family members make time and have energy to devote to care decisions. Others simply can’t.
The moral: Suspend judgment as you take time to listen to each other. While listening takes time, most decisions do not need to be made immediately and the investment of time can offer life-long dividends for healthy sibling relationships.
Don’t underestimate personal pride. I finally had to admit to myself and others that I was hurt my family didn’t call on me to help guide decisions. After all, I assist families with such matters every day. In my family’s case, my mother had designated a sibling other than myself with the Power of Attorney for her health care decisions. In the end, whether I agreed or disagreed, I had to remind myself that my mother trusted my sibling to make decisions for her. Perhaps the most important role I could play was to support the individual who had the burden of making the decisions. The moral: Respect each other for the important roles each of you has in the family.
Each of us can play a constructive role in helping our elders age safely and with grace. None of us can dictate how others will respond, but we can learn to be honest with ourselves and each other. When we do, be become more comfortable with each other and more productive as a family.