There is a saying that is often quoted by older parents that one mother can take care of 10 children but 10 children cannot take care of one mother. It is a sad sentiment that is reflected here, and often a true one. Elderly parents can find themselves feeling neglected by their busy children. They find that their needs and wants − though often unspoken and even unknown to their children − are not being met.
Today, the children, probably living on the opposite side of town, often work out of their home. At the same time they are raising families, doing chesed, maintaining the household and just trying to make ends meet. Little or no time is left for self-care and dealing with their high stress levels.
Whether a parent moves in with one of the children or lives nearby, the responsibility usually falls mostly on only one of the children, rather than being shared by the others. Over time, this causes resentment in the family between the siblings, as well as between the mother and the custodial child, for not meeting their needs and the non- custodial children for not visiting enough.
How to avoid this dilemma and cope? Clear communication with every sibling is vital. It is important to have this discussion before a parent moves in with a child or just after important life changes that may make a parent more dependent on their children. Death of their spouse, onset of an illness or just noticing that the aging process is beginning to cause more dependency and need for more care and monitoring, are such times, to just name a few.
A list of needs should be worked out beforehand and given to all the siblings so they can not only add to the list and collaborate on how to best care for their parent; but also have an opportunity to discuss with their spouses what is do-able for them.
This list should include everything from: Who will take the parent to the doctor, who will take them shopping, a schedule of visiting them and when they will come to visit you and for how long, as well as which yom tov will be spent with which sibling.
If a parent is going to move in with one child, it is even more important to get the care commitments agreed upon before hand. A custodial child with a live-in parent cannot be expected to do everything for that parent.
A vacation time is important for the care-giving child, so there has to be an agreed-upon person to take care of the parent when the child in whose home she live needs to have a break from responsibilities. This could be a scheduled respite time, a holiday or a sudden simchah (like a grandson’s bris) or, G-d forbid, a tragedy. It may even be just a few hours to do some self-care and stress relief.
If none of the siblings can commit to “covering” when the custodial child is away, perhaps they can be responsible to provide for someone else to stay with their parent. This might be an adult grandchild or a neighbor known to the parent who is willing to help out or who can be hired as a live-in companion/caregiver for the time that the care-giving child is away.
However, if it is a stranger, professional respite-giver, it is very important that the elderly parent gets to know the person ahead of time and feels comfortable with the arrangement and the person before being left in her care.
It is important that the non-custodial child realize that having a parent live with you will put added expense on the family. If a parent has no income, it is important that all the children share in the expense and be part of the mitzvah.
If the parent is financially independent but cannot handle their own finances, someone needs to take on that responsibility and be accountable to the rest of the family. This too needs to be discussed up front.
Even after everything is agreed upon, it is important to revisit this discussion regularly, perhaps every few months. We rarely know how we will act in a situation until we are in it. What was set up beforehand my not work or might be breaking down. Someone may not be doing what was agreed upon. Your parent’s condition may have changed and new needs arise.
If there is not an open and honest discussion with everyone − about what they need, their individual contributions and willingness to compromise, in order to have everyone’s needs met as best they can − resentment among the siblings with grow until it is a destructive force.
Even if the situation of a resident or ill parent exists, it is never too late to discuss the needs openly and honestly with all the siblings. Taking care of our parents is every child’s mitzvah. But, one cannot be expected to help out in situations they do not realize exist, or are unaware of the great difficulty involved.
If the resentment has reached the point of hostility between the siblings, ask a rav or social worker to mediate. But however you approach it, leave your anger at home and be honest about your needs, or your siblings will just assume all is well, and let you continue to do what should be their share, as well as your own.
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