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Sharing is Caring:

The Dynamics of Sibling Caregiving (with video)

Sharing isn't always easy for brothers and sisters who grow up under the same roof. Divvying up the wealth of toys, bedrooms or vehicles may have been a challenge at your house, and sharing the daily household chores could have led to family conflict as well.

Some things never change.

According to research conducted for the Home Instead Senior Care® network, sharing the care of elderly parents can be as much of a challenge for adult siblings. Consider these statistics:

  • In 43 percent of U.S. families and 41 percent of Canadian families, one sibling has the responsibility for providing most or all of the care for Mom or Dad.

  • 46 percent of family caregivers in the U.S. (40 percent in Canada) who said their relationships with their siblings have deteriorated blame unwillingness on the part of siblings to help.

  • Only about one-fourth of family caregivers (23 percent in the U.S. and 27 percent in Canada) give themselves high ratings for their ability to work together.

"Senior caregiving can either bring families together or cause brother and sister conflict," says sibling relationships expert Ingrid Connidis, Ph.D., from the University of Western Ontario. "In some cases it can do both. These issues can be very emotional." Connidis has partnered with Home Instead Senior Care to develop the 50-50 Rule® public education program to help siblings deal with the many issues of caring for a parent and to improve caregiver communication.

Key Findings

Sibling Caregiving Dynamics

  • Among a group of siblings, on average, the primary caregiver is a sister, age 50, who has been providing care for an 81-year-old mother for more than 3.5 years.

  • Primary caregivers spend 19 hours a week providing care, compared to four to five hours a week each provided by their other siblings.

    Care is not shared equally. In 43 percent of families, one sibling has the responsibility for providing most or all of the care for mom or dad. In only two percent of families, the siblings split the caregiving responsibilities equally between them. In all other families, caregiving is shared based upon skill sets or some other criteria.

  • The sibling who is the primary family caregiver reports putting in nearly four times the hours of care than their brothers and sisters (on average, primary family caregivers provide 19 hours of care per week versus four to five hours of care provided by their other siblings).

  • How is caregiving divided between you and your brothers and sisters?

    43% One brother or sister does most or all of the caregiving
    18% Two or more siblings share responsibilities, with one or more much less involved
    16% We participate based on our skills
    6% We take turns with caregiving tasks
    2% We divide caregiving equally
    15% Some other arrangement

    Nearly two-thirds of youngest siblings (64 percent) say they are the primary family caregiver, while only 57 percent of oldest siblings and 49 percent of middle siblings say this is their role. The youngest siblings surveyed are the most likely to describe themselves as the ones with the closest relationship with their parents.

  • The adult child who assumes the role of primary caregiver most often describes their traditional role in the family as the "responsible one" and "the organizer".

  • Caregiving arrangements amongst siblings occur more by happenstance than by careful consideration of what is best for the siblings or the parents receiving care: 27 percent say the caregiving arrangement with their siblings is "by default" and 25 percent say it is based on "proximity".

  • Family caregivers with siblings are most likely to perform tasks for their parents that include emotional support; advice and guidance; companionship; transportation; and assistance with groceries and errands.

How does birth order impact who is the primary family caregiver?

  • 57% of all respondents say they are the primary family caregiver
  • 57% of Oldest siblings are primary caregivers
  • 49% of Middle siblings are primary caregivers
  • 64% of Youngest siblings are primary caregivers

Family Roles Based on Birth Order

  • 70% of oldest children describe themselves as the "responsible ones"
  • 40% of middle children describe themselves as the "peacemakers" of the family
  • 43% of youngest children say they have the "closest relationship" with their parents

Quality of Care Influencers

  • Adult children say the most important characteristics for a caregiver are patience, reliability, a positive attitude, empathy and good communications skills. Caregivers surveyed give themselves the highest ratings for reliability and communication skills. They score themselves lowest for patience, financial management skills and medical skills.

  • 42% of family caregivers give themselves and their siblings below average grades for their ability to divide the caregiving workload.

    Four in ten adult children (42 percent) give themselves and their siblings below average grades for their ability to divide the caregiving workload. More than a quarter of caregivers (28 percent) say they and their siblings earn below average grades for their teamwork in providing care to their parents.

  • The overall effectiveness of the entire team of sibling caregivers is directly proportional to three key factors:

    1. Their ability to make important decisions together;

    2. Their ability to divide the caregiving workload; and

    3. Their level of teamwork in executing/implementing this workload.

    The higher the self-reported scores on these measures, the higher the overall grade the caregivers typically give to themselves and their siblings on working together to care for their parents. Conversely, the lower these scores the more likely caregivers are to report problems related to caregiving, including the deterioration of relationships with their siblings.

    This direct correlation is demonstrated by these trends:

    • More than two-thirds (68 percent) of caregivers who give their families the highest ratings on their "ability to make important decisions together" also give their families the highest overall ratings for working together to provide care.

    • On the other hand, seven in ten caregivers who say their families fail at their "ability to make important decisions together" also say their families fail in their overall ability to work together to provide care.

  • Nearly one-quarter of family caregivers say they would like to encourage their brothers and sisters to help more.

    Primary family caregivers who indicate they personally take on more responsibilities, including helping with errands and medication management, are the same individuals who say their family is poor at making important decisions together, dividing the caregiving workload, and teamwork.

  • Nearly a quarter of survey participants (23 percent) say the one thing they would change about how they approach the care of their parents would be to encourage their brothers and sisters to help more.

Caregiver Team Ratings

How do you rate you and your siblings on each of the following with regards to providing care to your parents? (Percentage reflects number giving themselves the highest possible rating.)

28% Our willingness to help each other
27% Our ability to make important decisions together
24% Our ability to communicate openly
23% Our ability to work together
22% Our teamwork
22% Our consideration for each other's ability to help
16% Our ability to divide caregiving workload

Impact on Sibling Relationships

  • When it comes to caregiving, there is a feeling among siblings that "anything you can do I can do better". Survey participants were much more likely to give themselves excellent ratings for important personal caregiving traits than they were their brothers and sisters. Following are the excellent ratings survey respondents assigned to themselves and their siblings, respectively: reliability (73 percent; 27 percent); communication skills (57 percent; 24 percent); and empathy (51 percent; 23 percent).

  • Just as the effectiveness of the caregiving team relies on three primary factors—ability to make important decisions together, division of workload, and teamwork—so does the quality of the sibling relationships. Caregivers who rated their sibling team highly on these three key issues are seven times more likely to say their relationships with their siblings have improved (instead of deteriorated) as a result of caregiving.

  • 46% of caregivers who say their sibling relationships have deteriorated say their brothers and sisters are not willing to help.

    The overall effectiveness of the caregiving team impacts quality of sibling relationships. More than one-third of respondents (36 percent) who give themselves and their siblings average or below-average overall caregiving scores report that their relationships have deteriorated as a result of providing care. Conversely, 69 percent of caregivers who give themselves and their siblings above average overall caregiving scores say their relationships with their siblings have improved as a result of caregiving.

  • Among those survey participants who say their relationships with their siblings have deteriorated as a result of caregiving, the most common reason given (46 percent) is that their "siblings are not willing to help". Of those who said their sibling relationships have improved, almost all said their communications with their brothers and sisters are better now.

  • Three out of four primary family caregivers say their traditional family role has changed since becoming a caregiver to their parent. In addition, about one in five (19 percent) say they have "become the parent now", and about one in seven (14 percent) say they "are more responsible".

Caregiver Traits

(Percentage is based on highest importance or highest ability ratings)

Importance My ability My sibling's ability
Patience 89% 35% 19%
Reliability 88% 73% 27%
Positive attitude 79% 43% 22%
Empathy 72% 51% 23%
Communication Skills 69% 57% 24%
Organization 51% 47% 22%
Financial management 35% 39% 22%
Medical skills 27% 14% 8%

Survey Methodology

The Boomer Project ( conducted an online survey of 711 U.S. adults ages 35–64, with living siblings or stepsiblings, who said they either currently provide care for a parent or older relative, or did provide care in the past 18 months. Almost 60 percent of the participants identified themselves as primary caregivers; the remaining respondents said they provide care too, but not as their families' primary caregivers.

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. May 13, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Posted by joycedavenport

    my mom is 85 yrs old slight dementia and has mobility problems. sheambulates via walker. i fix and serve her meals . which is a pleasure .my youngest sister lives 8 minutes away.she has been very little help. my brother lives 45 minutes away. he tries but is not consistent.i have asked for help in the past with very little avail.there were times i was very resentful toward my youngest sister. but had to let that go . i look at my work as a divine calling from God. what has amazed me most about my sibblings is their extrem selfishness. life is glad i am able to spend quality time with my mom.


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