Scenario: Adult sisters disagree over their aging, widowed father’s care

The caretaking sister in Ohio: “Since Mom passed away six months ago, Dad hasn’t been the same. He sits around moping all day. He even refuses to visit his long-time friends at the senior center. I’m worried about him. My sister says to leave him alone, but she has no idea what Dad is like now. And I don’t trust her. She’s had a grudge against Dad since she was 16. Mom was always the peacemaker, but she is gone. I’m really worried about Dad, but I don’t know how to help him.”

The non-caretaking sister in Minnesota: It’s Dad’s life to live. Let him do as he wishes. My sister should mind her own business. Dad called the cops on me when I was 16 just because I had too much to drink. I really miss Mom. She understood me and always fixed things with Dad.

Analysis: Lack of sibling communication

The stage is set for a major sibling conflict during the father’s escalating depression and/or at the time of his death. The lack of communication between sisters is also likely to perpetuate the rift between the Dad and his Minnesota daughter, due to her underlying distrust and long-standing negative feelings toward him.

It would not be surprising to discover that, because of the father-daughter estrangement, all of Dad’s assets may be transferred to the caretaking daughter during Dad’s remaining lifetime. And it’s possible that Dad’s will already has been rewritten with little or no provision for the Minnesota daughter. 

Going Grey Matters Commentary:

Family Dynamics PerspectiveAt times of stress and anticipated loss (the death or illness of a parent), family members of any age tend to regress to the old family dynamics.  Old behaviors tend to re-emerge. Independent adult children, despite living on their own for years, find themselves psychologically back in their childhood home. Sibling issues come to the surface – such as who is the favorite child; feeling unloved; feeling abandoned by the parents.  When that begins to happen, it is difficult to focus on the present day issue, which in this case is the care of an elderly parent.

Legal Perspective: From the perspective of an elder law or trust and estate attorney, this situation can provide the seeds of a will contest that would occur at the father’s death. What generally happens in these situations is that conflicts continue to grow between the sisters.  Old resentments, and as well as new ones, take form. Already in a depressed state, Dad seems to take on the views of the caretaking child. This further adds to a growing estrangement with the other child. Slowly but surely, the beneficiaries of Dad’s assets change.  The out of town child is eliminated as a beneficiary, without having any idea that this situation is occurring.  When conflicts like these arise in families, there is a tendency to avoid dealing with the situation as it is unfolding. It is unpleasant and difficult at times. Being involved with long distance caretaking issues is also extremely frustrating.  But denial can be very costly – both economically and emotionally.

Resolution: Mediation-guided family communication

Going Grey Matters’ approach can help the sisters resolve this dispute and avoid ongoing pain, by creating an opportunity for them to dialogue about their views. Interdisciplinary mediation is designed for scenarios like this, with legal and family counseling professionals working together to address the sisters’ family history, emotional baggage, common goals, and a mutually agreeable outcome.

Outcome: A plan for sisters and for their father

The sisters begin talking and work out their differences with each other and with Dad. Together, the siblings design a plan for their Dad’s wellbeing during the rest of his lifetime. And he begins to reconsider plans for the asset distribution in his will, now that he and the Minnesota daughter have improved their relationship.