House Divided: Sibling Conflict Over Aging Parents

The real work of families is recovery. In the volatile landscape of family systems, everything is exaggerated, both good and bad. One of the predictable “bad” events in the drama of aging parents is sibling infighting. It can be triggered by anything, but it is mostly about money, power, and affection. Once provoked, it extracts an emotional toll on the entire system that resists recovery. Here is a case in point.

A daughter and her husband step in to help organize and manage her widowed mother’s finances. The goal is financial sustainability. The plan appears to be working until her other siblings, the “local ones” who live close to her mother, intervene with their own advice and unspoken needs. Her mother is torn between competing children. In the end, she opts to relinquish control of her finances to the “local” siblings.  Affection gives way to betrayal, and the siblings splinter.

As in Shakespeare, winners and losers never stay put. The local siblings’ victory proves short lived. Financial stability quickly unwinds and an urgent plea goes out to the rejected daughter for advice and, of course, money. “What are you going to do?” her husband asks. Indeed, now what?

Justice in families is tricky business. The rejected daughter was understandably angry and wanted justice. She refused her siblings’ request for more money, and for all practical purposes, went incommunicado with the rest of the family. Then she waited.

Nothing. No apology. No request for forgiveness. Her mother and the other siblings continued to smolder in their financial crisis, and then things got worse.

Her mother fell ill. The rejected daughter hesitated by finally flew home. It was worse than she thought. No one was capable of managing the situation. Money, hygiene, and morale were all about to run out. The rejected daughter was angry all over again that the an even bigger mess had been dumped in her lap. “You’re the court of last resort,” her husband reminded her, “the last lap in the family. Step in or step out. Either way, I support your decision.”

Being right is easy, but not a strategy for healing families. The rejected daughter opted to step in, not alone and not without conditions, but she did step in. A geriatric case manager was hired, money was managed through local trust company, and her mother was moved into an assisted living community. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without confrontations, harsh words, and strict boundaries. But a fatal mess was reversed.

It turns out that recovery is not about happiness; it is about unmerited actions that families need, again and again to regain their balance and move on. In this case, it was about forgiveness, courage, self-sacrifice, and honoring an aging parent. And for this family, it came not a moment too soon…

3 responses to “House Divided: Sibling Conflict Over Aging Parents

  1. Some rare families have strengths that come to the fore during extreme situations. Though it isn’t the norm, in a successful case, there was a parent whose mantra had been that his children should “learn to get along”. After his death, they figured he might be right. To be frank, all families have dysfunction, don’t they?

  2. I am living this – and yes it rips families apart. Fortunately for me…I had asked my parents to fill out directives 10 years ago. They had requested me to be their Financial POA so I was able to step in when I had to. This led me to becoming my Moms Legal Guardian. This was impt. because under crisis, my Dad was not thinking clearly. And my sister had no legal leg to stand on. I prevented my Dad from becoming impoverished while moving my Mom into a Memory Wing. It was a nightmare but I know I did the best thing for my parents. My mantra was 1. Safe 2. Together 3. Happy They are safe, they are together ( my Dad is down the hall in Assisted Living) and 3. My Mom is happy ~ hopefully my Dad will get there. Thanks David for your articles… spot on.

  3. What a responsible and effective mantra for adult children of aging parents: Safe, Together, Happy. As important, the key to making the mantra possible was having the proper directives in place 10 years before things started to fall apart. Thank you for sharing this…Well done

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