How Sibling Criticism of Caregiving Can Hurt Parents With Alzheimer’s

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by Ray Burow |

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Between 2015 and 2020, the number of unpaid caregivers in the United States increased from 43.5 million to 53 million, and one in five of those care for family members. According to a Pew Research Center study, the most significant percentage, 44%, provides care for aging parents. Of that percentage, there’s little information regarding siblings that share the responsibility of caring for parents.

However, the 2020 article “The Caregiver Identity in Context: The Consequences of Identity Threat From Siblings,” from the journal Innovation in Aging, explored how “siblings affect one another’s well-being during caregiving.”

More than 400 caregivers in 230 families were involved in the study, which analyzed “whether perceived sibling criticisms are associated with caregiver’s depressive symptoms (a) directly, and/or (b) indirectly through sibling tension.”

The study didn’t support a direct relationship between “perceived” sibling criticisms and depressive symptoms. However, it did find a link between sibling criticisms and sibling tension, which resulted in symptoms of depression. This is understandable.

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My sister and I lived in nearby cities and were fortunate to share caregiving responsibilities for our mother with Alzheimer’s disease. Thankfully, we worked well together, and our two other siblings, who lived in different parts of the country, were very supportive. Caregiving was stressful, but we didn’t find reasons to criticize each other’s methods, and we didn’t face criticism from our other siblings. Caregiving was challenging enough on its own.

It was sad and complex, but family support made it bearable. Supporting one another was also best for our mother.

Unfortunately, a similar experience wasn’t the norm for study participants. Tensions often increase for adult siblings caring for aged parents, negatively affecting relationships within families and the caregiver’s well-being. The negativity and strategies that caregiving siblings employ to address criticism jeopardize the parent’s care.

Avoid criticism

Caregiving siblings should avoid criticizing one another for the good of their parents and also for the sake of their sanity.

  • Make an effort to support one another as you care for your parent.
  • Communicate rather than criticize, talking about the care process and whether each of you will or won’t be involved.
  • When you disagree, address concerns openly and involve a knowledgeable third party when necessary. A trusted friend of your parent or a professional counselor may help.
  • Be open to learning what you don’t know and be grateful that your sibling is willing to take on the responsibility of caregiving.
  • Caregiving siblings should avoid coming across as martyrs. If you need or want help, ask for it. Don’t assume your siblings should know.

Iowa State University’s Families in Later Life Research Laboratory and Department of Human Development and Family Studies will begin a new study focusing on caregiving as it relates to multiple family members. The study, supported by the National Institute on Aging, will include participants with just one biological parent diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Participants must have at least one living sibling willing to participate in the study, and the siblings must be related through the biological parent. Participants are compensated for their time.

If you care for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, you can learn more about participating in the multiple family member study. You may also contact Dr. Megan Gilligan, the study leader, at [email protected]

Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.


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