From The Globe and Mail. Published on Monday, Feb. 08, 2010
Inheritance. End-of-life decisions. Dividing assets. Senior housing. Dementia. Boomers with aging parents face myriad issues – not the least of them being sibling rivalry, writes Francine Russo in her new book, They’re Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy.
Ms. Russo writes of the “twilight transition,” a generational crisis that has millions of boomer-aged brothers and sisters reuniting to care for their aging parents. The sombre reunions are inflaming old sibling rivalries as adults deal with the end of their “first family.”
“These years of our parents’ decline are the final phase of the family in which we grew up,” writes Ms. Russo, a journalist who covered aging in Time magazine for close to a decade. “They are the transition to … a new epoch in which we and our siblings will be the oldest generation of our family.”
Ms. Russo, who interviewed 50 siblings as well as researchers and clinicians for her book, spoke with The Globe and Mail.
You detail the many unprecedented hurdles facing boomers as they start taking care of their dying parents: Life expectancy is up, as is the accompanying dementia; boomers are divorced and often without the support of a second earner; they are living farther away from the family home and often still supporting children. It sounds like a pressure cooker.
It’s a perfect demographic storm in the sense that many psychological, economical and medical movements have all occurred at the same time. The average person is living 30 years longer than a century ago. Medical science has created a situation where people can live for 10, 15, 20 years with chronic ailments with which they cannot function independently. Because of the revolutions in the boomer age group – more education, more geographic mobility, the women’s movement and complicated family structures – there are not available caregivers in the family.
So what happens when people have to divvy up the work with their siblings?
You know those movies and articles written every Thanksgiving and Christmas about the nightmare of the family getting together and everybody reverting to who they were when they were kids? Now, you’re not dealing with who does the dishes, but who takes care of mom, whether to pull the plug and who gets the money. The possibilities for conflict are explosive. There’s a huge re-emergence of sibling rivalry over parents because when we see that our parents’ time is limited, all the unmet needs we’ve had resurface: to be loved, approved of, forgiven or finally be judged as important or as smart as your sister or brother. When you’re talking about whether mom should live at home or move into assisted living and the emotional pitch becomes ferocious, it’s a clue that we should step back and understand that this argument is about something else.
You write that families resist change. Why is that?
Families don’t adapt easily – the structures are very deep and often unconscious. The family that gets together now isn’t the same family and it can’t function the way it did. Your dad made the important decisions but maybe he’s been dead for five years. If your mom healed the disputes, maybe she’s got dementia or she’s too frail. And it’s kind of irrelevant that you were the older sister because everybody’s an adult now. But people do slip into automatic, especially when there’s a crisis.
When do you call in a ref?
If the sibling tensions are too high, get a professional in as early as possible. You can [hire] a social worker or a geriatric-care manager, somebody who can hold the family meeting and say, “These are the objective issues. What can each of you contribute?” Very often, people don’t realize how much they can contribute, even from a distance.
You write about the sibling who avoids, and the one who controls. What are the motivations behind those different responses?
It’s common for adult siblings and parents to revert to outdated roles in times of crisis, author Francine Russo says.
The two main situations are one sibling who does all the caregiving and is angry at the other because they don’t do their “fair share.” The other situation is where one sibling is insisting on doing it all and the other says, “She won’t let me help.” This sibling wants to contribute but feels the other is hogging it all and shutting them out. Sometimes, because families are so complicated, these two are the very same situation.
What about the parents watching all this play out? Do they revert back to the favouritism they showed during the siblings’ childhood?
In the healthiest families, the parents take the lead in being realistic about their aging and not fostering competition among their kids. But as parents become old, dependent and fearful, their needs emerge in a less adult way sometimes. When a man comes to visit and all a mother does is crow, “Your sister came to see me five times last week and every day she brought me something,” he thinks, “I travelled 3,000 miles to get here. Hello!”
Although caregiving has traditionally fallen on women’s shoulders, you write that men are doing it more often now. How do their styles differ?
The stats show that about 30 per cent of caregivers are men. Men tend to be less hands on and hire people or put their parents in assisted living. This can be explained by the fact that most of them are caring for a mother because of the demographic reality that women live longer, which is a complication in all of this. Men are managers and they’re in charge. Often they’re very loving, but they are not brought up as women are to believe that they’re somehow responsible for the emotional happiness of other people. Men focus on giving their parents the best care, whereas women very often make themselves miserable trying to make their mothers happy when it’s not possible, either because their mothers were never happy people or because their condition makes it impossible. Women become very invested in a way that provides deep satisfaction, but also can be exhausting and make them resentful toward other people, usually their siblings.
Tips for avoiding conflict
Siblings have many tactics at their disposal to avoid haggling over their parents’ deathbed, Francine Russo writes in They’re Your Parents, Too!
Group huddle: “Try to get together and talk about this stuff,” Ms. Russo says. “Even if one person does most of the work, consider the family responsibility.”
Be there: Siblings should prop up the main caregiver: “Call your sister or brother often and ask, ‘How are you doing?’ Be prepared to listen to them vent about how hard it is.”
Know what you want: “Do you want a sibling to relieve you at some point? Do you want [whoever] can afford it to hire someone to come in and help you? Or do you actually want to be in charge of everything, but want your siblings to thank you?”
Be explicit: “Once you figure out what you want, then ask very directly for what you want, as specifically as possible. Don’t hint.”
Avoid talking when steamed: Dodge the “anger guilt gridlock” by speaking up before you’re peeved. We all know no brother or sister ever gave in to a demand.
Money talks: The sibling given financial authority should be e-mailing others with details such as medical bills, even when not prompted. “Transparency can dissipate a lot of the mistrust,” Ms. Russo says.
Watch out for personal effects: If possible, sort out the heirlooms with your parent present. Siblings should state what they want and draw straws if there is a conflict. And never throw anything out: “There’s no way anyone of us can know what emotional significance a table or an old book has for somebody.”