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Posted April 22, 2008

Ask An Expert

Caregiving Relationship: Can Sibling Be Forced to Help Mom?

Q. Can I legally force my sister to take care of our mother, who is 95 years old and has Alzheimer's? I’d like her help at least two weekends a month, so I can have some time for me and share time with my grandchildren.

Davina, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A. No, you can't legally force your sister to help you care for your mother. Frankly, that's probably a good thing. Not everyone is physically or emotionally able to give direct care to an elderly person. Someone who is being forced to provide care against their will is also the person I would worry about being rough or even potentially abusive.

When you've voluntarily stepped up to the plate to care for an aging parent it's pretty easy for siblings to take your sacrifice for granted. Often their response is, "You're the one who didn't want to put Mom into a care facility. We have busy lives, and we can't take her."

At least, that's honest! If your siblings are honest enough to say what they're thinking, you know where you stand. It's far more frustrating when they make repeated promises that they don't keep. That can keep you hanging and hoping until you eventually crash and burn.

Every caregiver needs time off. If your family members won't give you the help you need, it's time to forget about getting help from that quarter and start investigating your other options.

Because taking care of someone at home is much, much less costly than facility care, perhaps your sister would be more receptive to helping you pay for some respite care if your mother's income and savings won't stretch that far. When it comes to money, though, don't count on it.

If it's not important that your time off be on a Saturday or a Sunday, consider trying an adult day activities program if there's one not too far away. If your mother is able to get out of the house and qualifies to attend, it would be good mental and physical stimulation for her, too. Most attendees "hated" their day programs on the first visit, and now "hate" the days when they aren't scheduled to go.

If a day care program isn't an option, then bringing in a caregiver for a few hours or a day on a regular basis is another option. Yes, this will also cost some money, but it is far less expensive than a mental/physical breakdown, which is where you could be heading without some help. Here's some more information about non-medical home care that you might find helpful.

Check with your local Alzheimer's Association about respite programs they may sponsor. Some local affiliates have free or low cost programs that will cover several hours every month. For readers whose loved ones don't have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, check with the Alzheimer's Association anyway. They often know of other respite programs in your area which could be helpful.

Another good resource for information about support in your local community is your senior center. Someone with advanced dementia is not a good candidate for senior center activities, but their staff will often be knowledgeable about what else could be available to you.

If possible, try to first use your mother's money to pay for any support services you decide to use for her. It is so important that you preserve your own retirement savings so your own grown children won't be facing these same dilemmas if you need help when you are older.

This answer is provided by Molly Shomer, MSSW, LMSW, a family caregiving specialist and licensed geriatric care manager. Molly, a nationally recognized expert on eldercare issues, is the author of The Insider's Guide to Assisted Living. Her website is www.eldercareteam.com, and she can be reached at molly@eldercareteam.com.

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