Consider this scenario: Your elderly father begins to lose his mental capacity. He lives in his own home and is relatively well-off financially. Your sister is unemployed and moves in with your father. She pays no rent and may even be taking money from Dad. You live in another city across the country, which was what your father always encouraged you to do … to fly the nest and live your own life.
Suddenly your sister seems to have absolute control of your elderly father. You attempt to contact your dad on the phone but no one answers. Or you attempt to visit your father and your sister refuses to let you into the home.
Your sister claims that she is the one taking care of your father and accuses you of abandoning him.
What Could Happen?
In these situations, some people find out after a parent dies that a new will was drafted during the time when a sibling was shut out. The new will leaves everything to the person living with the elderly parent. That sibling may convince the parent not to tell his or her other children about the change in a will.
The parent may be told the other children never call, never visit and perhaps don’t even love the parent — all the while leaving out the fact that the other siblings are being prevented access. This may sound a bit unbelievable but it happens in many circumstances.
The dynamics of families often continue as parents become elderly and more vulnerable. That means that heated rivalries may occur — and adult children who have freeloaded off their parents for years may latch onto them even more.
Note: The person controlling an elderly parent doesn’t have to be part of the family. In some cases, it can be a housekeeper, neighbor or a stranger. The motives are the same — to make the elderly parent believe that the controlling individual is the only one who cares enough to help.
What to Do
If you believe a sibling is keeping you from your parent, your instincts may be correct. Instincts are often based on facts. If you cannot get in touch with your parent and are prevented from seeing him or her, it is a form of elder abuse. Someone who is exerting complete control over an elderly person is evidence of elder abuse. You can contact the adult protective services governmental agency in your area, explain the situation and inquire about an investigation.
Usually, government agencies will send someone to a parent’s home to interview him or her. If possible, ask to go along with them. If the agency says “no,” because it wants an objective opinion, make sure that the controlling sibling is not present when they are interviewing your parent. Ask the investigator to tell your parent that you have been trying to get in touch with him or her.
If you cannot get an investigator to make a visit, or if the investigator decides that your parent has his or her full capacity and is free to come and go, then you may want to seek court intervention if you believe your parent does not have the ability to make decisions.
You can also bypass the step of contacting the governmental agency, and file a petition in court for a guardianship if you believe your parent does not have the capacity to make decisions or if the situation seems urgent.
How to Prevent this from Happening
If you remain in contact with your parent and believe that a controlling sibling (or even an outsider such as a housekeeper or neighbor) is taking advantage of your parent, suggest to your parent to get the proper estate planning documents in place. This can help your family from being blindsided by issues later on. Speak with your attorney about these issues.
When Caregiving is Done by One Sibling in an Inequitable Way
This article focuses on situations in which one sibling keeps other family members away from an elderly parent with the intent to defraud the individual. But there are also families in which one sibling does the bulk of the caregiving — either out of choice or necessity — because the individual lives nearby, doesn’t work full time, or is just more compassionate than other siblings.
Even worse, the family members who are not bearing the brunt of the responsibility sometimes criticize or second-guess the decisions the caregiver makes.
In these cases, resentment and anger build up. It is best if caregiving chores are spread out among siblings as much as possible. Unfortunately, that’s not always feasible. If you are unable to provide the physical assistance on a regular basis, here are some ideas: