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Are You In A “Dysfunctional Family” With Aging Parents?

How many of us can say our families were mostly calm and peaceful and without ongoing conflict? My guess is, not many. As parents age, the embedded conflict can rise up, particularly when it comes to discussing finances.

The underlying causes of dysfunction in family dynamics can be many: a history of poor parenting, untreated mental illness, substance abuse and others. Given that these issues are widespread in our society, it is no surprise that adult children have difficulty approaching the subject of money with their aging parents. Aging parents, as well, may resist talking about it with their adult children. This creates a problem playing out every day somewhere: the elder in the family has not revealed what is in place for the potential need for care and support and the adult child or children are completely in the dark. The adult children have estranged relationships and no one talks. This has a way of blowing up when a crisis happens.

The Difficulty

Here at, where we offer advice to families of elders, we see recurring descriptions that sound like this: “I haven’t spoken to my brother in years”, or “I don’t get along with my sister, and she’s not involved”. The person describing the situation at hand is usually a responsible adult child who is facing a crisis with their parents and wants advice desperately. An elder falls, has to be hospitalized and after rehab, will return home unable to manage independently. Or the aging parent has a stroke and can no longer care for herself. Sometimes the aging parent has been showing signs of memory loss and dementia for a while and then they do something foolish with money, or they get lost, or crash the car. All of these scenarios force family members to face that the parent needs help. When the siblings or parent/adult child communication is dysfunctional, it can be excruciatingly difficult to try to work together to solve problems.

When there is an aging parent crisis, or the aging loved one is heading toward one, family members take notice and have an opportunity to act. Sometimes the responsible de facto leader speaks up and wants everyone to discuss what to do. When family members in conflict are asked to get together via telephone, zoom or in person, there is a tendency to unearth underlying hostilities, and accusations of wrongdoing in the past. Simply put, dredging up the past never works.

What Can Families Do About Long-Standing Conflicts Within?

If the objective is to ensure the care and safety of the elder, most likely some sort of common ground, it is important to first identify it. If family members agree that this is what they want, it is a step toward reaching any agreement. The initiator of the conversation needs to speak up about known problems with the aging parent. One mistake some family members “in charge” make is to assume that everyone else knows the same information. This can include medical information, diagnoses, financial issues, loss of independence, etc.

Professionals Can Help Dysfunctional Families Make Agreements

When old hostilities raise their ugly heads and the family cannot reach any accord, it’s time to get help with the family meeting or call. Professional mediators can assist, social workers, elder care providers and even trusted clergy may be able to help family focus on the objective for the aging parent, rather than what’s wrong with the other sibling or whatever they have a grudge about from the past. This is mediation. It is quite distinct from therapy. There may be one or two meetings to see if agreements can be reached. The goal is not to fix broken relationships. Sometimes relationships do improve when accord about anything can be reached.

The caution here is that if you ignore the primary aging parent problem because you don’t get along with either the parent or your other family members, things will only get worse.


1. If you see an aging parent crisis looming or they are in one, don’t ignore it. It won’t go away by itself. Aging doesn’t work that way.

2. Take the initiative to speak up and ask for a discussion with other family about what to do about the aging loved one in trouble.

3. Focus totally on the elder’s care and safety. Ask others to refrain from bringing up the past. Try for agreements to stick to what is going on right now.

4. If your family can’t even have a conversation without yelling and accusations, get a professional to assist with a family meeting. A neutral outsider, preferably a trained professional mediator can help you come up with agreements about the aging parent.

5. Do not give up! The safety of your aging parent is at stake. No matter how they behave, or how difficult siblings can be, the aging person is vulnerable and needs assistance of some kind. Forgive the past. That does not mean you condone bad behavior. It means you release your emotional attachment to it.

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