Decisions about aging parents revive conflicts in adult siblings

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Carla K. Johnson, Canadian Press
Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 Article tools
CHICAGO (AP) – The tension rose as Richard Aylward and his two sisters sorted their mother’s possessions into four piles: to keep, to donate, to throw out and to move with her into an assisted living facility.

He was annoyed that his sisters wanted to reminisce about every photo and book. He wanted to hurry up and finish the job.

“Because I was the one who had to do the moving, cleaning, selling, closing, etc., I knew I had to play the heavy,” he said.

Eventually, his oldest sister – fed up with her brother’s pressuring – walked out.

Big sisters, little brothers, black sheep, dad’s favourite – all the old roles, battles and rivalries resurface when a parent’s health is failing and decisions must be made.

With about 20 million Americans providing care for a parent or in-law, such family dramas – often with financial questions lurking unsaid – are playing out across the country, said Bonnie Lawrence, spokeswoman for the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Eighty per cent of long-term care is provided by families, not institutions, Lawrence said. Even families that don’t provide care, though, are choosing a nursing home or making medical decisions about a dying parent.

But getting stuck in an old squabble can sabotage wise decisions, said researchers who study family dynamics.

To help, some states offer free consulting to families making decisions about elders, and a new school of professional mediation has sprung up to help baby boomers stop fighting with their siblings and refocus on what’s best for Mom or Dad.

Such services still are rare, though, leaving most families to cope on their own.

Old family dynamics come back like a boomerang during anxiety-producing conversations about aging or ailing parents, said Brian Carpenter of Washington University in St. Louis who has studied sibling issues.

“One person takes charge, the other is more submissive; one sibling is the joker, smoothing over disagreements with humour, while another sibling is the serious one, all efficiency and business,” Carpenter said.

Sometimes the roles help, because the family originally may have developed them to take advantage of individual strengths, he said.

“In other cases, however, when those roles have never been really helpful, they get in the way of making parent-care decisions, just as they probably got in the way of lots of family decisions throughout life,” Carpenter said.

Sisters tend to criticize their brothers for not doing enough, while brothers don’t take enough credit for what they do, said Sarah Matthews, a professor of sociology at Cleveland State University, who has conducted research on siblings with aging parents.

Her interviews with 149 pairs of siblings found women and men have different expectations. Sisters saw their siblings as a team. They expected co-operation. They wanted communication about what each sibling was doing for the aging parent. Sisters also felt they knew more about what needed to be done.

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