Brother, Can You Spare Some Time?

How to ask your siblings for help.

Things have changed. 

In the beginning, helping mom wasn’t so bad. But now mom’s needs are growing faster than your ability to meet them. And stay employed. And care for yourself and your own family. 

The good news is you have siblings you can ask for help. The bad news: you have to ask your siblings for help.

That can get tricky. Unless you’ve been blessed with pleasant, well-adjusted siblings who are ready, willing, and able to do their part. In which case, don’t bother playing the lottery. You’ve already won. 

As for the rest of us: Here are some tips that can make it easier to ask your siblings for help without losing your sh#t if they don’t.

Get Clear About What You Want

How do you want things to change?

Think about the bigger picture. Yes, you need your sister to take mom to the dentist next Tuesday. And you need someone to cover you so you can tour colleges with your high school senior. 

But what about emotional and financial support? Or coverage so you can take a long weekend and clear your head?

Do you need someone you can count on as your backup plan if something happens to you? (You do!)

Be honest. Are you really open to accepting help? Or is this something you need to work on? Control issues are common for primary caregivers, especially if you are the oldest.

What, exactly, are you asking for? You need to know because the clearer you are about what you want, the easier it is for people to decide if they are willing and able to say yes.

Manage Your Expectations

Caregiving is no time for magical thinking, advises Working Daughter founder Liz O’Donnell:

“If you and your brother have never seen eye to eye, this is not the time to expect you will start. If your sister has always been disorganized, this is no time to think her executive functioning skills will improve…. 

“Control what you can control. You can’t get your sister to do something she doesn’t want to do or doesn’t deem necessary. And you don’t want to waste your energy trying. Much better to determine how you will proceed given the information you have.”

Be Direct, Specific, and Realistic

The first rule of asking for help is: You have to ask! 

Not hint. Or hope that your brother finally gets around to asking you what he can do to help.

“I shouldn’t have to ask” isn’t a strategy. It’s wishful waiting that leads to resentment — and it’s common. 

Maybe your brother won’t help for reasons he can’t or won’t explain. But it’s also possible he thinks you’ve got everything handled. Because you’re the one who always handles everything. And in his mind, you’re also a bit of a control freak. And if you really wanted his help, you’d ask. 

So if you want your brother to drive dad to his doctor’s appointment, you have to ask him. 

If you want your sister to hang out with mom so you can have a date night with your partner, you have to ask. 

Be direct and specific: “Can you stay with Mom on the third Saturday night of the month so we can get out?”

And be realistic: Your siblings have their own lives — and their own relationships with mom. If your mother and sister can’t go 10 minutes without going 10 rounds, don’t expect your sister to step into the ring.

Watch Your Tone and the Guilt

Asking siblings to come together to help your parents has a way of opening unresolved baggage. 

And everyone is carrying different baggage because everyone’s childhood experience is different.

That’s why the story you’re telling yourself about the reason your brother won’t help is not necessarily the story he’s telling himself. 

So watch your tone.

Regardless of how sweet you think you sound, no one is more sensitive to thinly veiled frustration, sarcasm, or anger than a sister or brother who is listening for it.

Using guilt to get your sibling to step up is also a mistake. It may feel righteous. You may not be convicted by a jury of your peers. But it’s a pyrrhic victory, warns geriatric psychology expert David Solie:

“While we may think guilt, shame, anger, and manipulation can help us to get them to carry their weight, this strategy never works in the long run. Even worse, it takes a heavy toll on us and them. Better to be blunt and admit that if their contribution is zero, then zero it is and move on.”

Should You Get Expert Help?

How much effort do you make with a resistant or estranged sibling before deciding to move on?

That depends. Everyone’s family is complicated in its own frustrating way. But if you and your siblings are willing, working with an objective professional can help keep cracks from becoming permanent fractures. 

For more on where to get expert help and which option may be right for your situation, check out Carol Bradley Bursack’s excellent guide here.

The Value of Steady Effort

Knowing when to move on isn’t easy. But it can be liberating. Especially if you find yourself afflicted with what Keeping It Real Caregiving founder Julia Yarbough calls “Vanishing Sibling Syndrome”:

“For quite a while, I had to deal with feelings of anger, frustration and dismay… When were my siblings going to raise their hands and say, ‘Hey, we’ll take over now. Your work is finished.’ 

“That never happened. But here’s what I did learn during that time: The sooner you accept YOU are the primary caregiver, the easier it becomes to begin making the necessary decisions to secure the best care possible for your loved one.”

That clarity is key to moving forward, advises David Solie, because it frees you to refocus your energy on creating a non-family support system for your parent:

“One of the essential strategies for being successful with our aging parents is a concerted, relentless effort to piece together a support system. It is a journey filled with false starts, dead ends, and false hopes.

“But it is also a journey of numbers. A steady, disciplined effort at building relationships yields good people, people that our aging parents need in their lives. 

“This should be the logo on the T-shirt of every adult child working with an aging parent: steady effort.”

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