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9 Mistakes Adult Siblings Make When Parents Are Aging, Sick, and Dying

Journalist and author Francine Russo has a new book out, offering tips for caregiving children.


Jan. 28, 2010

U.S. News & World Report

How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy.

I wish I had known this when my siblings and I were struggling with the care of our mother. Perhaps the anger and hurts might not have been as it was.

In her new book, They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy (Bantam, 2010), journalist and author Francine Russo discusses one of life’s most trying transitions: when parents are aging, sick, and dying. Below, she points out nine ways that adult siblings foul up when attempting to navigate this “new life crisis”:

1. Thinking that “if my sibling is doing the parent care, I’m off the hook”

Although it’s rare for siblings to share parent care equally, it’s a family responsibility, says Russo. Not treating it as such “will haunt you” later on, she says. Even if you live far away from your ailing parent, you can still help out. From ordering car service a couple times a week to paying bills online, anything that can be done via telephone or Internet is within your reach, she notes. Just calling your mom more often “so she’s not so needy” can provide relief to the sibling carrying the heaviest load, says Russo, as can making the trip to be with your mom whenever possible, so your sibling can take time off.

2. Not giving appreciation and emotional support to the main caregiver 

A chief complaint of many caregivers is that their siblings criticize what they do, says Russo. However, research suggests that emotional support is the most crucial factor to a caregiver’s well-being, she says. If you do have a legitimate concern, phrase it delicately, she advises, to avoid its being interpreted as a slam. “What caregivers want is to be in it together,” she says. “They don’t want to be alone.”

3. Falling prey to the “killer” misconception that “I shouldn’t have to ask”

If you’re the one bearing the brunt of your parent’s care, perhaps you’ve thought: If my brother were a good person, he would volunteer to help me and would know what to do. “Do you know how unreasonable it is to expect that?” Russo says. “It’s akin to mind reading, but it’s even a little bit more insidious than that.” Why? It assumes that all siblings should feel the same way about their parent, she says, when really, each has a unique relationship with that parent and had a different role in the family growing up.

4. Assuming that our siblings are the same people they were as kids

“Give them a chance. Approach them as adults—they may surprise you,” she says.

5. Automatically reverting to childhood roles 

The big sister who always took care of everything may take on the bulk of the responsibility, while her little brother, out of habit, may let her do so unquestioningly. Beware of that magnet pulling you back to childhood. “Those roles can be very counterproductive,” says Russo.

6. Not realizing that your beef may be caused by your parent, not your sibling

They may not mean to, but parents can divide their adult children, says Russo. Say, for example, that you fly in to visit your mother and she exclaims that your brother called her multiple times last week, then continues to sing his praises. “[How] does that make you feel, because you’ve just traveled 3,000 miles to see her?” It’s also not uncommon for parents to tell children different versions of the how-they’re-doing story, which can make for conflict. “The person who is nearby will probably be told the truth because Mom can’t hide it.” However, Mom might put on another face for a sibling visiting from out of town, since “nobody likes to be old and infirm and complaining.” The visiting sibling may conclude that Mom’s doing great and wonder, “What is my sister talking about?” says Russo.

7. Not planning for tough realities ahead

End-of-life care is something that few people like to think about, let alone discuss. Avoiding the subject until it’s unavoidable, however, can be a “huge mistake” with devastating consequences for the sibling relationship, notes Russo. Her advice: Call a family meeting when your parents are still healthy. Such a conversation might start this way, she suggests: Remember aunt so-and-so, and how our cousins were still fighting when she was on the respirator and they wouldn’t let her die and how painful that was for everybody? We don’t want that to happen in our family. Mom, Dad, do you have a living will? Have you assigned somebody to be the healthcare proxy? Though they may attempt to deflect such questions, Russo suggests nudging further. If you were on a respirator or in really bad shape, would you want us to do everything possible, or would you just want to go quietly? Who should make that decision? We’ll all want to do what’s right, but we may have different feelings. “These things are so much easier if the parents lead the way,” says Russo.

8. Inheritance: thinking your parents will adjust for any past inequities

“The vast majority of parents leave their money and their estate equally to their children, no matter who had the Ivy League education, who got the loan for the house, or who is always borrowing money,” says Russo. “There’s a really powerful wish when people are facing their end to wipe the slates clean,” to erase debts owed. Even if your sister never repaid your dad the money he lent her and you never borrowed a cent, it’s very unlikely the difference will be docked from her inheritance, says Russo. Occasionally, parents will divide unequally. This, too, can spark hard feelings. The most common reason for doing so, however, isn’t to be unfair, says Russo, but because they believe that certain children need the money more than others. Her advice: “Try very hard to think what you would do as a parent if your children had unequal needs,” she says. “If you knew one of them might lose his house, whereas the other would be fine, wouldn’t you want to make sure that when you died the struggling one would be OK?” Parents can help their children avoid future wars by telling them what’s in their will, especially if it’s unequal.

9. Thinking everyone mourns in the same way

Your parent’s death has you, a woman, coursing with emotion, yet your brother doesn’t seem fazed. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. Research suggests that there are gender differences with respect to mourning, says Russo. In general, men tend to be much more private, she explains. Sometimes, drinking or acting out is how they mourn, she says. Women, on the other hand, tend to want to talk about it and have public ceremonies. “Don’t expect everyone to have the same feelings,” the same willingness to talk about what happened, the same responses to important days, like an anniversary, or a birthday, says Russo. “Be respectful of that.” [For more, visit Russo’s website, YourParentsToo.com.]

Tags: parenting, senior health, aging, senior citizens, family, baby boomers

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