The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
George Bernard Shaw
I bet this has happened to you. You phone your aging parent(s) and they tell you something that concerns you, in fact it upsets you. Maybe, they say, your sister/brother who is visiting or lives closer than you do has done something that pushes your buttons, something inappropriate and annoying, or at least that's what your parents say. Or, as with my parents, it might be the live-in caregiver who has said/done the upsetting thing. You hang up the phone and you're angry, annoyed, frustrated - choose one - and too far away to go and see what's happening. So, being the dutiful son/daughter that you are, you phone up the offending sibling/caregiver and ask - maybe not too kindly - "what's going on!" The next thing you know, World War III has broken out. Miscommunications are flying left and right and more than one person is caught in the crossfire.
I am intimately familiar with this scenario - having been both the one creating the "tempest in the teapot" and the one caught in the cross-fire of miscommunication. Last summer, for example, there was a misunderstanding that escalated into my father struggling to wrestle the phone out of my hands and yelling at me and, then, my siblings phoning asking me, "what's going on?" in a less than kind tone. What had happened was that the visiting nurse had stopped by and heard some wheezing in my mom's chest. I panicked. I admit it. And I decided that it would be good if Mom had a blood test to make sure her white blood cell count wasn't elevated. I panicked because two years ago my mom had a very bad case of pneumonia that was only detected through her WBC count. Meanwhile, my father thought I was phoning 911 for an ambulance to take my mom to the local ER. Either he hadn't heard what I was saying properly - he's a bit hard of hearing - or he just got confused. So, right away he was on the phone to my other sister and brother telling them what he THOUGHT was happening. They took it as Gospel truth, even though they know my father has cognitive decline and hearing issues. To be blunt, they didn't cut me any slack and leapt into the fray without asking me what had really happened. Confusion and anger reigned.
Several days ago, I was the one who almost created a tempest. I phoned my mother and she told me - to my great surprise - that her caregiver had said that if I visited she (the caregiver) was going to quit. "You can't come," my mom told me. "Not even for two weeks or else, Mary (let's call her) is going to quit." Needless to say, I was surprised and outraged. I didn't stop to think that maybe my mom had misunderstood something Mary had told her - this despite the fact that I know that my mother's on lots of pain meds and and has her own cognitive issues. I tried to phone Mary on her cell and she didn't answer. This added fuel to the fire. Next thing you know, I'd shot off an upset email to my sister who holds the Power of Attorney for my mother. Then, thankfully, I was able to get through to Mary who clarified what was going on. My mom had overheard her talking on her cell to a friend about maybe taking a few days off while I was visiting. My mom turned this into: "Mary will leave if you visit." I quickly emailed my sister: emergency over and sat back feeling a bit embarrassed, to say the least.
So, the next time your parents tell you something alarming - unless the something alarming sounds immediately life-threatening - stop. That's right, stop right where you are and do nothing. Take some deep breaths and calm down. Ideally, you should wait an hour or even longer before picking the phone back up to clarify what you think is happening. Above all: CUT YOUR SIBLING(S) OR THE CAREGIVER SOME SLACK. Whether you're turning molehills into mountains or creating tempests in teapots, neither is going to help anyone, including you.
Here are some great links on communication. Notice that many emphasize in person communication, so communication via phone or email has to be even more careful.
And if all else fails, this (paraphrased) advice from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn should help: "Smile, breathe and speak slowly."