Caring for Aging Parents


Q. My dad is in his late 80s and has been in steady decline since my mom passed away a few years ago. My sisters and I all moved away from our hometown and our only brother, who lives just down the street from our father, is his primary caregiver.


To be blunt, our brother isn’t doing well. His marriage ended, he’s working hard as a single parent, and he owns and operates his own business, which provides an irregular income at best. My sisters and I have urged our brother to get Dad into adult day care—or better yet, move him into an assisted care facility. My brother refuses because he promised our mom that he would never “put Dad in a home.” We’re all willing to do our part—one sister has even offered to bring our dad to live with her—but our brother adamantly refuses to discuss any other solutions. We’re at an impasse, and the tension is mounting. Do you see a solution?


A. This is a complex question! But then again, families are complex systems comprised of God’s most complicated creatures of all—human beings—so it’s no surprise that family dynamics are often difficult, especially in times of transition or stress.


Your family’s situation is growing increasingly common as our parents are living longer and our families have become more geographically dispersed. Because of his proximity to your dad, your brother is living the “sandwich” scenario, taking care of everyone around him (but probably not taking very good care of himself.) Obviously he feels that the fact of his presence from day to day entitles him to call the shots. That may not be true or fair, but it’s clearly the role he’s chosen for himself.


Still, the fact that you and your sisters left the area doesn’t mean you left the family. It’s clear you feel frustrated because your brother is resisting one solution that would equalize the burden of your father’s care—a residential facility for your dad—but he’s also unwilling to move your dad to your sister’s home. Whatever promise he made to your mother before her death clearly weighs on his heart, so he’s taken on all the responsibility for your father, even though that’s clearly not required.


But as your question indicates, the situation is what it is. You’re at an impasse that involves an elderly and declining father and what seems like a stubborn brother, so I’d stop focusing on a solution you’re not likely to achieve. Keep in mind that your brother’s actions are a reflection of his own emotional needs as well as his perception of what’s best for your dad. If he has defined himself in part by his loyalty and attentiveness to your parents, then asking him to step back from that role would be especially hard.


Instead I’d urge you and your sisters to focus on two things: providing whatever long-distance help you can give to ease your brother’s caregiving load, and giving him even more personal support and gratitude.


For example, while you can’t get your brother to agree to adult day care for your dad, maybe he’d agree to a meal service that you and your sisters could underwrite. Or one of you could take over on all of your dad’s medical records and financial matters so that your brother isn’t faced with mountains of insurance forms on top of everything else. Or you might orchestrate a reunion at your dad’s house solely for the purpose of a “fall clean up” on his property.


Most importantly, if it’s possible, you and your sisters could rotate visits to your father so that one week each month, your brother is “off” and one of you provides respite care.


Finally, get a family prayer chain going so that you are all praying together through this difficult time. Something as simple as a daily group text message with a short Bible verse and an intention for the day would be a powerful way to participate in your dad’s care and support your brother.


Remember that God created your family for times like these. Even if you believe there’s a better way to care for your dad, your brother’s actions should be recognized and appreciated. It seems like everyone is just doing the best they can do.

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