The Stress of Being the Remote Sibling
What do you do when you live far away from your aging parents? I remember (barely, to be honest. I was in college and wrapped up in my own thoughts and life) when my parents who retired young made the decision to retire and move to Florida. No, that’s not a caricature. It’s the truth. Complete with a manufactured home, shuffleboard (my mom was listed as one of the top in the state at one point!), and 4:30 p.m. dinners.
But my grandma (mom’s mom) was in a nursing home. My mom had been the sibling who carried a great deal of her care. She was geographically closer, was a retired nurse, and female. Her brother was in the state, but still working and lived further away. Throughout my life, my mom called her mother several times a week, and visited frequently while grandma lived independently.
Shortly after the decision to have grandma’s care provided by a facility, my dad retired, escaping from the onslaught of computers and the changes they would bring to the work rhythm he was used to and comforted by.
My mom was not the remote sibling for long, it was only a matter of months. Grandma’s health deteriorated quickly, and she died shortly after Mom visited her after retirement, seemingly having gotten the answer to “Where’s Estelle?”
I never did talk to Mom about her feelings about moving away at that time. She and my dad were in good health and active when I moved from Florida to Texas. Although my parents developed some age and lifestyle related health concerns, being remote wasn’t a concern in terms of “aging” parents until Mom was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2004.
I was part of another family during my brief 2nd marriage where a remote sibling was part of the team to help. My (then) husband’s father, a recent widower, and parapelegic since his 40’s from an injury sustained during his service in the Army, needs had outgrown his on-property caregiver. We lived hours away (in Texas, you can live HOURS away and still be in Texas) but were the closest family. We visited, dealt with the house (mom had been something of a collector) and the house was deteriorating. We moved him first into a Senior apartment complex, but his needs were too great for that level of care, and we quickly moved him into an Assisted Living. We were lucky that my brother-in-law was a willing, capable, and helpful remote sibling. He is also a pilot, and could access travel easily. In spite of his own sandwich (he had a young, growing family at the time), he was willing and able to help in the ways he could. The brothers worked well together, able to transcend any differences or history out of love and respect for their dad and for his benefit.
But it’s not always, maybe not often, that way. When I was a student therapist, I worked in a nursing home. My role was to counsel the residents with the idea that providing therapeutic services would not only help them, but possibly increase compliance with medication, hygiene, and other areas that made staff concerns easier. In that setting, I learned a lot about family functioning around aging parents. Unfortunately, many of those lessons were about how often accusations of money exploitation are made, accusations of neglect, perceptions of “doing all the work.” In spite of the busyness of the setting, the loneliness of most of the residence was palpable.
So, here are some truth bombs regarding remote siblings:
- If they don’t want to help more, you can’t make them. Even if they should. Even if you do everything. If this is your situation, I encourage you to limit the time and energy you put into trying to make this happen, and also the time and energy you use talking about it. I understand the need for validation and empathy. Select a person (maybe 2) who can give that to you, and commit to talking to only them about it, and limit the frequency and duration of even that. The stress chemicals and the negativity are experienced in real time; your brain experiences each as a new event. By continuing the thought pattern, you hurt you.
- If you are the remote sibling, try to defer to the stated need first. If you can, try to give help in the way the closer sibling says they need it. Don’t try to “over guess” the sibling. They are the one there day-to-day and they are the one who needs the support and relief, please believe them.
- If you are the geographically close sibling, please be open to “other eyes.” It’s human nature to not see changes when we live near/with them. In my own case, my sister gave phenomenal care to my dad as he lived independently but the acceleration of his decline wasn’t as dramatic for her. This is very common, and expected. Please don’t take it personally when a sibling comments on the health or functioning of your parents. Be open, even a little, to their feedback. They may see something that your tired eyes have missed.
- Have the hard conversations. If you can, have them early rather than later. Money, property, who is going to be in charge; these are all conversations that need to happen. The longer you wait, the more assumptions each side makes, and potentially the more anger, hostility, and discord can build. They are not easy conversations but there are speciality professionals who can help you.
- If you are the close sibling or the one who provides most of the functional care, get support and help unapologetically. Life is hard. Being sandwiched between the needs of your aging parents and your own kids, spouse and career is hard. Don’t add to that trying to convince someone who isn’t in those shoes to understand. It’s great if they do, but if they don’t, make your plans and boundaries anyway.
- Savor joy whenever you can. In all settings and with all people you can, savor joy and pleasure. With your aging relative, if possible. With your kids, definitely. With friends. Hobbies are great. Good sex is helpful. Enjoy the parts of work that energize you. Look at it this way; you have lots of parts of your life that drain you, you need to be intentional about the parts that energize you.
- When it comes to decision making, seek healthy input but be willing to make a decision and move on. If the discussion becomes contentious or draining, make the best and most informed decision you can, wrap boundaries around defending yourself and move on.
- (gently) Accept offers of help, and don’t be too bossy about the help. It’s common for the primary caregiver to be particular, fussy, and downright bossy about the way care and support is given. While there are details that need to be attended to in many cases, some of that is about power and the need to feel needed. There are many remote siblings who would help more if they weren’t told “what to do” every time they tried.
Remember, I don’t want you to wait until your months or years of being sandwiched are over before you find joy, energy, clarity, and balance. Contact me for coaching and we can work out a plan.