The Sibling Dilemma

“But things in this life change very slowly, if they ever change at all”

The Eagles from Sad Cafe

In David Rico’s book “The Five Things We Cannot Changeone of the immutable laws of living on earth is that “life is unfair.”? Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interaction of siblings over the issue of their aging parents. We are tempted to believe that when adult children are asked to rally around an aging parent, the unresolved sibling issues of childhood would be set aside, and “the kids” would stand ready to partner for the common good. The truth is usually far different and more painful. What we see time and again is that the inconvenient occasion of aging parents simply reconvenes a family drama in which the players continue their previous roles and with an all too familiar outcome.

As much as we wish it were different, family roles for the most part are cut in stone. This is not a lament but simply a fact. Birth order, hair color, personality type, and timing all cast us in a role from our earliest years that follows like a shadow. If we start out as the outsider, the favorite, or the conscientious one, that’s were you will usually find us at sixty. How we feel about this is less important then its tactical significance. Knowing this fact about family systems allows us important choices when we find ourselves in an involuntary alliance with our siblings to address the predictable dilemmas of our aging parents dilemmas. How?

First, it allows us to stop trying to change our siblings who for the most part really resent us for having the audacity to think that we need to “fix” them. Most of us have been trying this from childhood with poor results.

Second, it allows us to accurately access to what our siblings will and will not do. While we may think guilt, shame, anger, and manipulation can help us to get them to carry their weight, this strategy never works in the long run. Even worse, it takes a heavy toll on us and them. Better to be blunt and admit that if their contribution is zero, then zero it is and move on.

Lastly, it allows us to invest our time and money in creating a non-family support system for our aging parents. One of the essential strategies for being successful with our aging parents is a concerted, relentless effort to piece together a support system. It is journey filled with false starts, dead ends, and false hopes. But it is also a journey of numbers. A steady, disciplined effort at building relationships yields good people, people that our aging parents need in their lives. This should be the logo on the T-shirt of every adult child working with an aging parent: steady effort.

If you are blessed with cooperative, helpful, and collaborative siblings count your blessings and let them know how much they mean to you. If your siblings abandon you to fend for yourself, then use the occasion to enhance your networking skills. Either way, you get the friendships, support, and resources you need to deliver a “steady effort.”

2 responses to “The Sibling Dilemma

  1. I expected this to be true as my brother and I could not agree on anything for decades. We were civil but he backed away from me and the rest of the family. When my father died unexpectedly and we were left to care for my mother he jumped in right away. We butted heads for a bit, I was threatened that he could just waltz in and take over, he is the older one, but after some head knocking from our aunt we have been on the same page ever since. The bottom line is that we love each other we love our mother and want what is best for her and we could waste time arguing or we could take care of business. Thankfully we both chose to grow up.

  2. I recently finished a stint being the primary caregiver for my aunt who recently died of breast cancer. I watched the dynamics between siblings as they tried to establish a caregiving system. What I found was that the cousin who is a nurse and was always deemed the bright one, dictated how the system would work without a family discussion. I finally got my aunt to trust her oldest daughter to provide some of the care when I had to go home. The bonds created from me tricking them into letting the other cousin in will be everlasting between the sisters.

    Hence, as I prepare to become a caregiver for my aging parents, I tried to include my brother. You are correct in your analysis that you can’t change the dynamics between a sibling and the parents. He will be useful in work around the house but not in actual caregiving tasks. Now I know I need to make plans to create outside relationships that will help minimize the mental, physical, and emotional demands of primary caregiving. I suggest everyone have family discussions and be realistic about who is going to be able to help and in what areas. The other part of this situation is making sure that the males are given the chance to participate and not just let them off the hook. Many times they don’t realize what they can do and they believe that their sisters will be better at the “care.”

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