Bursack: Caregiver isn't sure how much sibling help she really wants

Carol Bradley Bursack
Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist. Special to The Forum

Dear Carol: My parents are nearly 90. I have three sisters who are scattered around the country and I'm much younger than they are so we aren't particularly close. I stayed in the community where I grew up so I’m with my parents nearly every day. That’s fine with me since I’m close to them, but that also leads to confusion about how to deal with my sisters who aren’t as close.

I think that if I spoke up they would offer help in some way, but I don’t want them trying to direct what I do so I don't ask and they don’t offer. I expect our parents’ needs to escalate in the near future, but I’m confused about how much involvement I want from others. — DA.

Dear DA: In a perfect world, everyone would know what others wanted and needed from them, no one would overstep boundaries and all would be peaceful. As you know, this isn’t a perfect world.

I understand your thoughts about having your autonomy interfered with. You are with your parents almost daily, so you most likely have a solid understanding of what they want and what's best for them. Since I routinely hear from caregivers with siblings who make caregiving more complicated, depending on your relationship with your siblings, your instincts may be on track.

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What about your parents, though? Maybe they feel bad that your sisters aren’t as involved in their lives as you are. I can only give you my thoughts based on your letter, but I feel that your family obligation, if only for your parents’ emotional welfare, is to communicate with your sisters about your parents' ongoing need for care. It’s possible that your sisters may want to help but they don’t know how; they may feel shut out because you are inadvertently sending signals that you don’t want their help; or, as is often the case, they are completely thrilled that you are taking over.

Regardless of the reason for this family disconnect, to me, the right thing to do is for you to reach out often enough so that your sisters don’t feel frozen out of the close relationship that you have with your parents. If you do that, perhaps you’ll be happily surprised when they offer to spell you occasionally on a weekend, or help from a distance with research and paperwork.

Conversely, you may find yourself wishing for the days when they ignored you, but even with that, you’d still know that you tried to include them. When you reach out, be honest about your own needs. You could tell them that your parents are doing well now but you feel they should be kept up to date on important issues. There’s nothing wrong with telling them that you may be asking for some help in the future.

One important result of your reaching out is that your sisters might become increasingly aware that they need to see more of their parents while they can.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached at

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