Working Through Sibling Rivarly to Care for Aging Parents

Recently, I counseled a woman who was struggling with the ever-increasing demands of caring for her aging parents while trying to manage her own family’s needs. “Mia” has two young children, a husband, and a full-time job—in addition to her caregiving duties.

In our first meeting, I learned that she had been the sole outside caregiver for her parents for nearly two years. Mia’s mom and dad had been less than friendly to dog walkers and house cleaners alike and had developed a terrible habit of simply firing anyone who’d been contracted to lend a hand, which made their daughter feel all the more more tied to their needs.
I also discovered that Mia has a sister—in perfect health—who lives about 25 minutes away.

In an all-too-common caretaking scenario, one sibling had neither asked for the other’s help; the other had not stepped up to offer.

“How is this possible?” you may be wondering. (Yes, the sister was well aware of her parents’ health and activities, as she has had regular phone exchanges with them and they have kept her up to date.)

It’s quite simple, really: No matter their true age, siblings tend to take on the same roles they played in childhood whenever they are engaged in stressful family dynamics—parents’ aging being one of the most stressful situations we will ever encounter. Our relationships to our parents and siblings are vital in shaping our personalities and our views of ourselves; each family member takes on a different role within the unit. Times of difficulty only tend to heighten unresolved feelings. “Dad never listens to me, anyway,” “They’ve always liked my brother better than me,” “Sissy has always had it so much easier than the rest of us!” etc.

In my role as a mediator for such families in crisis, my goal is not to heal these old wounds, but to help each family member better understand how he or she can play a role in the successful operation of the family unit as it stands today.

Not all of us are as self aware as we’d like to be. Sometimes we need a third party to come in and help us see where we really stand.

Such was the case with Mia and her sister, who were stuck in their roles from yesteryear. By first speaking with each woman separately and reminding them of the real focus, caring for their parents, the sisters were able to come together and articulate how each could best be of aid—be that financially, physically, or through making phone calls and arrangements.

Mom and Dad were also brought into the conversation, and they agreed to stop haphazardly firing contractors and instead to bring any complaints to the sisters, who would then take these concerns to their proper places.

Thus far, this family is doing much better, and Mia and her sister are able to see one another as the capable, grown women they are, and not the children they were so long ago.

If I may be of assistance with your family, or if you know someone whose family unit is also struggling with the fallouts of aging, please reach out to me

All the best,

Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.


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