From Expert Column answered by Fern Pessin


I care for a relative and we are a very small family. I handle the and, although my sibling generously helps financially, he is very hands off.  (To be fair, he lives over an hour away.) I have always been positive I could count on him if I ever needed him.

Recently, my caree had a severe decline in health and it was a scary situation. I called my sibling and asked he visit my caree. He told me he was very busy (who isn’t?). I don’t do this very often (this was the only time this year and probably longer than that), but I pushed and made it clear he needed to visit. He did but it was obvious he wasn’t happy about it.

Shortly after that visit, I visited him at his house with my caree. My sister-in-law “talked” with me about how I shouldn’t have pushed, I am not my sibling’s “mom” and that I was completely wrong to insist my caree be visited by this sibling. Both she and my sibling made comments to the effect that the caree “wasn’t dying.” I was very hurt since I asked him to visit not just as support for my caree but for me too (maybe even more for me).

My relationship with my sibling has always been solid. I feel a paradigm shift here and I’m not liking it. I am inclined to continue to update my sibling on my caree’s condition but not insist on visits — even rarely. I think I need to accept my sibling’s part of caregiving is strictly financial and mine is hands-on. Is this the right approach? Was I expecting too much to insist on the visit?

Signed, Anti-Change

Dear Anti-Change,

I too share a close relationship with my siblings and even though they live thousands of miles away, I have tried to communicate with them regularly on the care of our parents. It has taken weekly and sometimes daily emails as well as conference calls and Zoom sessions at times of critical decision making to keep them in the loop so that when and if I need something, the strong bond is likely to make my request a reality. I’ve called on them to call in, Zoom session, or visit at various times (during COVID that visiting became impossible.) Perhaps a regular email with updates from you will help create a connection for your brother to you and your relative?

In a different situation, a girlfriend of mine knows that her brothers are only in for the financial contributions toward their mother’s dementia care, but they honor and respect their sister’s work as primary caregiver. They came into town about twice a year to visit their mother and were there for the funeral. My friend does the work, they pay the bills; that was the deal.

My friend’s situation sounds similar to your relationship with your brother, except that your caree does not sound like it’s your mutual parent. In this case, I suspect that your brother provides financial support because he wants your life to be easier as you’ve chosen to take on this caregiving role. He may not feel particularly connected to this relative. When you asked him to visit for the relative’s sake, he could not connect to that. A conversation about the roles and rationale for each of you in this caregiving situation would help clarify boundaries. If you know that his support is about you, then asking for him to come and provide respite for you, or to be emotional support for you, could have been received differently.

In any case, you must look out for your own health and well-being and if the support from your brother is not fulfilling your need at the moment, don’t wait and fret about it. Find support elsewhere. His resistance does not invalidate your legitimate need. You can turn to friends or local family, in-person support groups, local organizations and non-profits, phone hotlines or Zoom/Facebook groups virtually… find what you need to help you get through whatever challenges you face.

You cannot know what is happening with your brother in his life that might be impacting his ability to be there for you and maybe he doesn’t want to worry you. If he says he cannot, then find alternate solutions. If the support you need is emotional, find a way to do that virtually if not in person. He may be willing to spend time on the phone with you but not make the drive to see you. Can that be enough for you?  Since you visited him not long after that with caree in tow, perhaps he felt he legitimately hadn’t needed to make the trip since it was clear you and the caree could have made the trip to him.

Consider having a discussion with your brother to define boundaries. Begin with letting him know how much you appreciate him and all the support he can give and has given to date. Ask him how much he wants to be involved. Find out what he believes is worthy of you reaching out to him about this relative or your own support needs. Does he want to know when end of life is close or only after your relative passes? Will he come to a funeral? And if he says he wants to know what’s going on, how often is he comfortable receiving that information? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Or only when something significant happens that changes this person’s status?

To be healthy, each of us must set our own boundaries. No one wants to be diminished, ignored or trampled over. On the other hand, all relationships involve give and take, so whatever my expectations are does not mean you must meet them. It’s only through clear communication, updated over time for new life happenings, that we can maintain positive, mutually beneficial relationships.

It sounds like you have a wonderful relationship with your brother and I hope that you can move past this situation in a positive way that enables both of you to support each other respectfully and thoughtfully with love.

Be well,