What inspired you to write this book?
When my mother was failing, my sister was the one taking care of her. I was really clueless about what was expected of me. And after my mother died, I spent a long time trying to figure out how I could have gotten it so wrong. I did a lot of soul-searching. I struggled to understand what had gone wrong, what I could have done differently.
As I tried to figure this out, I noticed in my work that many other people were wrestling with the same issues. They wrote to me at my “Ask Francine” column in Time magazine about conflicts they were having with their sisters and brothers as their parents needed care or when they died. My readers were confused, conflicted, yearning, angry.
I thought it would help me, and others as well, if I could understand these sibling struggles. I began researching a story for Time about how siblings related to each other over caring for their parents. Even before its publication, the story was huge. As I reached out to potential interview subjects, I was flooded with messages and mail from people who wanted to talk, to vent, to ask for help. I realized that an article couldn’t begin to address all the complexities of this subject. I would need to write a book.
How is They’re Your Parents, Too! different from other books on this subject?
Actually, there are no other books on this subject— the emotional crisis of adult siblings dealing with their parents’ aging through the trials of caregiving, dementia, transfers of legal powers, death, mourning and becoming the oldest generation. There are lots of books on how to care for aging parents, but this book focuses on the adult children and whether they can make their original family work now in new times. If they can—and I hope my book will help—then caring for their parents will go better.
What kind of research did you do?
A lot, and all different kinds. I read about family psychology and adult development. I spoke to psychoanalysts, family therapists, healthcare workers, and other professionals in the field of aging, from assisted living experts to family law attorneys. They confirmed that the family dynamics I was finding everywhere were real, and they helped me better understand specific pieces of the puzzle. Family therapists, social workers, geriatric case managers, home aides, senior-living employees, hospice counselors: these professionals gave me tremendous insight and a sense of context. But the siblings struggling through what I came to call the Twilight Transition, or recently emerged from it, taught me the most. I interviewed many, many siblings in person, by telephone, sometimes by email correspondence, talking to as many as possible within each family.
You’ve talked about this family crisis as new, but haven’t adult siblings always had to deal with elderly parents?
Not in the intense way they do now, not for so many years. What I call the Twilight Transition has been emerging gradually since the 1970’s.
One or two generations ago, sisters and brothers did not generally go through this long renegotiation of their family relationships over their parents’ old age. The odds are overwhelming that their mother or father would not have lived to be as old as people now live. But if a parent were one of the rare old people, she would probably have been healthy, then died after a brief illness. If she needed assistance longer, an unusual occurrence, one of her homemaker daughters would have cared for her. People just did not live for a decade or longer with serious chronic illnesses. In the first chapter of the book, I explain how a convergence of medical, social, and political trends have created this new, long family transition.
Why do you think it’s important to write about the sibling relationships when it’s the parents who are aging and dying?
Research has shown that siblings can be caregivers’ greatest supports or their biggest source of interpersonal stress: not their parents, not their spouses or children but their siblings! Just ask anyone with an aging parent about their siblings. Some will say their siblings are a godsend, but others will roll their eyes, laugh bleakly or start to rant. Inevitably they will say: “Oh, boy, do I have a story for you!”
When siblings can work together well through this difficult transition, it helps the parents get better care; it safeguards caregivers’well-being; and it increases the likelihood of sustaining the family connection into the next generation. Also, after our parents die, our siblings are all that remain of the family we grew up in. And that turns out to matter a lot, as I have found out.
If people’s parents don’t need care yet, should they wait to read your book?
No! The sooner, the better. So much grief could be prevented if people can only look a little ahead and prepare. They can prepare by thinking about the various dilemmas that will probably arise. If their family is likely to need professional help—which may not even occur to them—they can get it before they’re in a crisis. And if some of their siblings are in denial about what’s coming, the book will help them deal with that first off. At every stage of this process—increasing needs for care, transfers of legal powers, dementia, end-of-life, death, mourning and inheritance—there are new practical and emotional challenges. This book can help with all of them at any time before or during this time. Even after the last parent’s death, it can help people who feel unsettled about what happened or who want to repair their sibling relationships.
What was it like to talk to so many siblings from the same family?
This was the best part. I met so many wonderful people who shared so much of their intimate lives with me. It was startling at times to hear sisters and brothers give such starkly different accounts of the people in their families and the meaning of events, past and present. It was rare that I thought one was “right” and one was “wrong.” Each had grasped part of a complex picture. No one was in possession of the whole truth. What they taught me most of all was compassion—for all of them, even those who were not behaving well by most people’s standards. That would include me and the mistakes I made.
What were the best moments in your sibling interviews?
Sometimes I’d be sitting in a coffee shop with someone talking about her brother or his sister, and, under my questioning, I would see a sudden realization hit. Suddenly they got it, they understood how their sibling felt, and why they were fighting. Once in a while, I was even the means of “fixing” something. There was a brother who was hurt and angry that his sister wasn’t showing any appreciation for all his sacrifices to care for their father. Later that week, on the phone, his sister told me how grateful she was and guilty, and wishing she could help. When I asked her if she’d ever told her brother these things, she said she hadn’t. And with a few more questions, she suddenly realized ways she could help! She was very excited, and the next day he emailed me that she’d called and thanked him for everything he’d done. I wish that problems in relationships were always so easy.
What was hardest in interviewing siblings?
There were some people I interviewed who were just so unhappy and lonely in caring for their parents. And others so harshly critical of their siblings that they could feel no empathy. That was hard to see, but what was hardest was that they were fiercely committed to whatever was keeping them miserable or angry. Sometimes they refused to tell their siblings they needed something—help, appreciation, a shoulder to cry on—because their sister should know to do this. Or there were people who really wanted to be closer to their siblings, but they kept doing things to drive them away. It was great when they were open to seeing a way out, but not everybody could do this.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I’ve worked hard to understand this from different directions, and at the deepest levels, and I hope readers will come away understanding more about themselves and the family they came from. I hope they will understand more about the complexity of family relationships and learn to have more compassion for themselves and each other. Most of all, I hope this book will make the twilight transition an easier passage for them. Because if we do this well, three things happen: we take better care of their parents, we grow as people, and we are likely to have each other as family after our parents are gone.