As parents grow older, experience health crises and require more help from adult children, having siblings to share the caregiver load makes things easier. Right? If you weren’t quick to nod your head in agreement, you might be one of the many family caregivers who find themselves dealing with the “old business” and long-standing sibling dynamics that can re-emerge during this time.
Journalist and speaker Francine Russo refers to this stage as the “twilight of the family” in her book, They’re Your Parents Too: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. Russo’s book examines an often overlooked stress point in family caregiving: friction between adult siblings. Not only can conflict get in the way of providing the best possible care for our senior loved ones, but it can also have long-term impact on relationships within the extended family. Russo says that the aging of parents is part of a “new developmental stage of a family. “She says that the way siblings navigate this period together helps determine how they will continue to interact—or even if they will.
Russo, who covered the aging and baby boomer beat for Time magazine and now serves as a speaker on eldercare issues, offers many real-life examples of siblings negotiating this task. The book offers valuable advice for handling common eldercare events, such as the gradual decline or sudden health crisis of a parent; dementia; legal and financial problems; end-of-life planning; funeral arrangements; and estate issues.
The book shows how this challenge can draw families together—but can sometimes also bring out the worst in sibling relations. Brothers, sisters and parents who might have rarely communicated over the years are thrust back together, examining their family dynamics under the microscope of sudden proximity. Caregivers now in middle age are confronted with thoughts of their own mortality. Guilt, grief and unexpressed anger may add to the emotional minefield that can explode a family discussion in no time.
Disagreements are common Here are a few of the thornier—and most common—situations Russo describes:
• When there is an imbalance of care: a sibling who will not help, a sibling who prevents others from having a say. • When a sibling from out of town “swoops in” and criticizes the caregiving of another adult child who lives near Mom and Dad and provides the lion’s share of care.
• When siblings disagree about how much care elderly parents need, and how much independence is safe.
• When there are disagreements about endof-life care, especially when a parent has not shared his wishes on the matter. Russo offers suggestions for successfully navigating this group effort:
• Understand that much of the conflict siblings are experiencing actually arises from “old business” and established sibling dynamics.
• Learn all you can about aging, elder care, dementia and other relevant issues. What’s normal and what’s not? What can family expect? What resources are available?
• Bring in outside help. A geriatric care manager, elder care attorney or therapist can serve as mediator when siblings are contentious or come to an impasse.
• Look at this time in the family’s life as laying the groundwork for future relationships between siblings and grandchildren.
Russo points out that our “task” through childhood and adolescence is to separate from our parents and birth family to become autonomous individuals. But most of us will freely admit that there were gaps in the process. Our parents’ old age, the time when we parent our parents, can be a time of completing our sense of adulthood, and a time of healing.
Source: Informed Eldercare Decisions in association with IlluminAge.