This is my third go-round with being the long-distance sibling and I’ve learned quite a bit. Frankly, I made every mistake you could possibly make. And I know most of the experts! So here are my personal tips on how to navigate the waters when you visit. Some of these may seem silly, but with family members – particularly your siblings – little things can turn into big issues really quickly.
1. Don’t show up with “Guilt Gifts”
You live and work far away. That’s a fact. Don’t try to assuage your guilt for not being there by outspending your siblings on gifts. This was a huge issue for me and it really pissed my siblings off. And it brought up slights and old grudges from years ago. Why add that to an already fragile ecosystem? I worked hard to listen for real needs, and I asked a lot more questions about what would be helpful.
2. You will see changes your parents' condition in ways your siblings can’t
They are immersed in the tasks of day-to-day. You show up and immediately see changes in the way they look, their self-care habits, what they are eating, how they are communicating. Talking with your sibling in charge is delicate. You cannot make them feel as though they’ve “missed” something in caring for your parents. Don’t try to take charge and begin fixing things without a conversation.
3. Your caregiving sibling needs to talk about things other than your parents
There is a tendency to arrive and be laser-focused on your parents and getting an update. For some caregivers, you are their line to the outside world. Talk about other things in your lives. Get them out of the house even if it’s for coffee. They are tired, stressed, and probably angry that your folks’ faces light up like a Christmas tree when you walk through the door. Let them have those emotions and use your emotional IQ to deal with it. Many times I found my sibling simply wanted to vent and really wasn’t asking me to solve the problem for them.
4. You will feel like an outsider and decisions are going to be made without your input
If you are a control freak, you’re in for a lot of pain. Caregiving happens in real time and there isn’t time to make a phone call every time a decision has to be made. Be thoughtful about how you ask questions about those decisions that are made in real time. Your sibling is doing the best they can with the information they have. Unfortunately, distance means you abdicate the right to question.
5. Your sibling has no idea that when you say goodbye to your parents you are afraid it’s for the last time
They are thinking you get to leave and go back to your normal life, so why are your sad or crying? You don’t know that they think every day about being the one to find one of your parents deceased, or being there when death occurs. Or making the phone call to you when the time comes.
The best advice I have ever read on the topic – though it is very hard to do – says to get all of the family members on the same page as soon as possible. This gives everyone a chance to step up and provide what they can provide in terms of care, support, and finances. We didn’t do this the first time. Many assumptions were made that were simply wrong. Feelings were hurt and it took time to mend relationships.
This conversation with your siblings shouldn’t be rushed, and no one should be exhausted, emotional, or under the influence of anything. To the extent possible, drop the familiar scripts – who’s the favorite, who’s the black sheep, etc. I’ve seen people unexpectedly become the very best versions of themselves when faced with caregiving responsibilities.