Quibbling Siblings: Eldercare Edition

Your sister shared her insights about dating. You taught your brother how to ride a bike. But now that you and your siblings must deal with an aging parent, the ties that used to bind are fraying. Here, how to come together in a crisis—and maybe even strengthen your relationships 

by Lise Funderburg
elderly senior holding hands caregiving picture
Photograph: Claudia Dewald

My father died two weeks later, and a few weeks after that, I realized I’d forgotten to turn off my audio recorder one afternoon in Georgia while he visited with his buddy the dairy farmer. As I played back their conversation, I heard him talk about us to his friend.
“My daughters have been good to me,” he said, a declaration all the more credible in not having been meant for our ears. The efforts we made had served him well, but they also revealed strengths in my sisters that I benefited from realizing: Margaret’s ability to see past vexation defused many tense moments, and Diane’s determination and deep sense of responsibility pulled Dad through numerous financial mix-ups and one horrific 24-hour episode of unrelenting and intractable pain.

In the aftermath, I feel not only a kind of survivors’ bond with my sisters but also admiration and a more self-conscious intention to value them as they are, enhanced but not hobbled by our common past. I aim to communicate clearly and, when necessary, eat crow.

Most siblings manage to come through the caregiving experience with their ties intact or strengthened, experts say, but of course there are extreme cases in which relationships shatter beyond repair. In her new book, Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret, New York City psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, PhD, expresses the provocative idea that we’re all entitled to not have a sister or brother in our lives. Safer spoke to numerous caregivers, including a man who had gotten together with his brothers to build his mother a house. “When the mother died, she decided to leave the house entirely to her daughter, because the daughter was her favorite,” Safer says. The brothers said that was unfair; the daughter said it was what their mom had wanted. Enraged, one of the brothers said he saw no point in trying to resolve this break with his sister. “The problem is that if you reconcile, what do you get?” he asked. “A relationship with her.”

These siblings wound up at the scorched-earth end of the spectrum, but where there is something to salvage in a relationship, it’s worth the try. As Blair Trippe notes, siblings may refuse to speak for 30 years, but nobody’s really happy about it.

Improved sibling ties leave more room for adult children to be present with their dying parent, to share the pleasure of the parent’s company and to talk through unsettled matters. A better bond among the children also helps the parent. “Somehow, when the siblings make decisions together, there seem to be checks and balances that insure that the parent’s views are respected and represented,” wrote psychologist Victor Cicirelli in his 1995 book.

Laura Catherine Brown lost her father 18 years ago, but she and her sisters still meet in Manhattan twice a year, on the anniversaries of the day he was born and the day he died.

“We try to go to the same restaurant,” she says. “They let you sit for hours, and they give you napkins if they see you crying.” If any of the sisters spends too much time reviewing how their parents disappointed her, Brown says her first reaction is impatience. “I think, Oh, crap, do we have to go through this again?” But then she stops herself, she says, not wanting to condemn the need to revisit the past. As adults, the sisters have allowed one another a leeway that has brought them a better understanding and intimacy. “Gradually my youngest sister has recognized all the ways our father didn’t give, and I’ve recognized some of the good I couldn’t see, and we’ve come together somewhere in the middle.

“Our bond has become stronger year by year. We weren’t allies in childhood, but we can be now. How many people do you have that closeness to? In life, there’s no other relationship like this.”

Experts feel confident predicting two things about parental caregiving:

Originally published in the May 2012 issue

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