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Sibling Rivalry: How it Changes as You & Your Parents Age

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How Sibling Rivalry Plays Into Caregiving

If you have siblings, you’ve likely experienced the classic trope of sibling rivalry. Though it’s always unique to each family and can change over time, the competition may never end. 

Brothers and sisters grow up, move out, and move on, generally maturing in the process. Siblings go their separate ways to compete with the greater world instead. But this dynamic isn’t the only one that changes as young families grow old. With almost 30% of the country’s population providing care to a family member or friend, the role of parent and child can quickly be flipped.

Approximately 15% of adults with parents who are 65 or older say that their parents need help with some of their affairs. This more than doubles as parents reach the age of 75. But when the responsibility falls to adult children to help out and make decisions, it can cause sibling rivalry to rear its annoying head.

The Challenges of Denial

Unfortunately, our society has developed a disposition of fear towards the process of aging. This is due to many different factors. It can be extremely challenging to admit to not only ourselves, but our families, that we’re not as healthy or capable as we used to be. 

On the other end of the spectrum, it is often upsetting for children – regardless of their age – to accept the reality of aging parents. That their guardians are now the ones who need support and protection can be a tough pill to swallow.

The transition from an identity of independence, responsibility, and authority to one of reliance and lower personal function is a hard one. As the needs of aging parents increase with time, many families need to band together to make decisions and help out.

However, clichés regarding siblings who just can’t get along will prevail.

Different Perspectives

Siblings generally share parents, common childhood experiences, and more. But when they grow into adults and create their own lives, it can be an even bigger challenge to relate. (Yes, more difficult than the age-old argument of what television show to watch.) Adult siblings share a more complex history than they did as children, and may even be estranged from one another. 

Many have long since moved away from their families to make their mark on the world. The challenge of deciding whether or not to return to care for their aging parents can be all but insurmountable.

On the other hand, some families continue to share everyday experiences as new generations are born. Parents become grandparents, and Sunday dinners are expected every week. 

Regardless of where siblings fall on this spectrum, both situations can make it extremely easy to either accept or deny that your parents need help.

siblings fighting with their mom mediating

Acceptance vs Denial

For the child who has built a life elsewhere, it can be easy to have a more objective view of the state of a parent’s health. They may be able to better see how a parent’s health had been compared to the way they are now. 

For a child who frequently spends time with aging parents, it may be easier to deny the degeneration of their health. This is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees, which happens to all of us sometime or another. If an aging parent is also in denial, it can be even more natural to believe them when they say they are fine.

However, it’s also likely that the sibling who spends more time with the parents will have a clearer perspective on their health. They may be more likely to notice small occasions of decline than the sibling who spends less regular time with the parents.

Visits from the child who moved away could also encourage “best form” from their parents. The excitement and joy of a visit with loved ones could mask symptoms and issues that normally occur. This makes it much easier for the absent sibling to deny that there is a need for care.

Coming Together

Any way around it, more often than not, siblings don’t need a good reason to disagree. In a situation with the high stakes and emotional turmoil of a loved one in need, conflict can be more common than cooperation. 

Whether this is due to old patterns resurfacing, an unbalanced division in the responsibilities of caregiving, or just different perspectives, the added tension does not help anyone.

“Get Along!”

If you had siblings growing up, or are close with a family who has this dynamic, you know how exasperated parents can get when bickering and arguing are constant.

Well, that’s one thing that likely won’t change with age. However, parents suffering dealing with Alzheimer’s and related dementias will no longer be the mediator: this extremely complex and chaotic disease could, again, switch the rolls.

Individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s experience the world in unpredictable, unfamiliar, and unplanned ways. This is not only a challenge for them – it is a shock to their children’s sense of security, too. 

But even if lucid enough to play peace-maker, an aging parent will be sensitive to the distress of arguing siblings for more reasons than one. And while the conflict may be unavoidable, the sooner adult children learn how to navigate it, the better.

How to Change the Narrative

While there’s no definitive method of resolving sibling rivalry and conflict, there are a few things that can help to calm the waters.

Work on your acceptance of what’s going on. Admit to yourself the reality of the situation, and take the time to allow yourself to feel your emotions. Seek out support from people you love and trust. Accepting your feelings about the situation will benefit you – and your family – in many ways.

Firstly, you should find that you have more emotional energy at your disposal. You no longer need to put in the extra work of denial. Secondly, it will make genuine solutions easier to come by. Further, it will encourage your siblings to do the same. Once all of you together realize how chaotic, crazy, and triggering the situation is, it will be a relief. 

There’s no definitive guide to helping our aging parents, just as they did not have a handbook while parenting you. 

two brothers and their father smiling as a family

Rediscovered Camaraderie

Most of us who have brothers or sisters have some memory of banding together to achieve a common goal. If this sounds laughable, take a minute to think… 

Did you ever create a human ladder to get to the cookie jar? Maybe have one person stand lookout while the other snooped for a confiscated toy? Or perhaps, a combined effort to surprise mom or dad on their respective holiday?

Whether or not a memory like the above comes to mind, caring for an aging parent will take cooperation and compassion. By helping your sibling, you’ll be helping your parents, too.

And we think that they would thank you for caring.

The Hearth is always here to help.

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  • Written by Janet Haynes

    As the Vice President of Clinical Services, Janet oversees the organization’s professional development of the nursing team and clinical systems to optimize the quality of care delivered to our residents. She was critical is establishing Hearth Management as a leader in nursing care in the Senior Living and Memory Care industry.

    More Articles by Janet Haynes

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