By Francine RussoIf you're a baby boomer dealing with elderly parents and someone asks you about your siblings, you're likely to roll your eyes, laugh bleakly or swear. Or maybe you'll just say: "Boy, do I have a story for you!" (Or if you're a lot younger, you may have a story about your mom and her siblings!)With apologies to Martha & The Vandellas, they're not "Dancin' in the Streets"; they're fighting in Philadelphia, P.A., Baltimore and DC now (Baltimore and DC now) Yeah don't forget the Motor City (can't forget the Motor City). Wherever you are, adult siblings are fighting, simmering (even suing each other) over caring for their aging parents and everything that goes with it. "My brother and I are at each other's throats," one sister told me as I was researching my new book, They're Your Parents, Too!What's going on?Think of it as a perfect storm with every social, historical and psychological force converging to suck families into an emotional tornado. Our parents are living decades longer with chronic illnesses while the revolutions that started with boomers--more education, geographic mobility, women working, complicated family structures--have made family caregivers less available. You can read everyday about the caregiving burden, the sandwich generation, the dilemmas of medical care and cost. But the big story under the surface (and furiously agitating it) is that of a new life-crisis--for our original family suddenly and imperfectly reunited--and for every person in it.
People have always had to lose their parents-and experience one of life's biggest psychological challenges. But what's new is this long family transition where we and our siblings (or as many of us as remain) have to re-engage with each other around our elderly parents' needs--for years!
Think about it. Our original family, which had a way of working when we were kids, with each person playing certain roles, well,...that family hasn't interacted intimately for 30 or 40 years. Some people are missing; others are changed. Maybe in your family, your dad made the important decisions. Well, he can't do that any more. He's dead. If your mom was the peacemaker, maybe she can't be that anymore because she has dementia. If you were the big sister who took care of the little ones, or the screw-up that everyone else took care of, well those roles may not serve us, as we re-engage around our parents' aging. So our family is like a rusty old machine with missing parts. Moreover, its beliefs and ways of talking (or not talking) about what's important can now create hurt, frustration, and conflict.
If all this weren't enough, each of us is going through our own developmental crisis, confronting our parents' aging and dependency and then their death--which marks our final separation from them and the shield they provided us from our own mortality. Do we need to act maturely? Oh, yes, and we often do.... more than we've ever done. Do we also regress? You better believe it. Our oldest needs resurface-for our parents' love or approval, to be judged okay, to be judged better than a brother or sister. We may act out ferocious sibling rivalries under the guise of well-intentioned disagreements about what's best for Mom. Our yearning for the family we wish we had can collide with the family we've really got, with crushed expectations and rage sometimes making us incapable of seeing or thinking straight.
How can we get through this crisis? Recognizing that it's happening to us is the first, critically important step. Because, I promise you, if you don't recognize that you're in this passage, it will overtake you and bite you in the ass-as it did me. But that's a tale for another day.About the Author: Francine Russo is the author of They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. A widely respected journalist, she is especially tuned into trends that impact her own boomer generation.