They're Your Parents, Too!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
My Uneasy Journey Into the Twilight
Confronting a New Family Passage
1. The Last Transition of Our Original Family
2. Acknowledging Our Parents’ Aging
Return to the House of Childhood: Adapting Old Roles and Relationships, Confronting Old Conflicts
3. Who’s Taking Care of Mom? Adapting Roles to Take on Parent Care
4. Dad Still Loves You More: Revived Rivalries, Chances for Resolution
5. "We weren't your Normal Rockwell family:" Holding the Ideal Up to Reality
6. Who Put You in Charge? Adjusting to New Decision-Makers
Slipping Away: Making Peace with Change and Loss
7. Here, Yet Not Here: The Dynamics of Dementia
8. Gathering at the Deathbed: Decisions, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Loss
Reinventing the Family for Our Generation: Sharing Stories, Passing on Legacies
9. Mourning and Moving On: Alone and Together
10. Inheritance: What Our Parents Have Left Us, What We Carry Away
11. The Sibling Generation: Sustaining the Family Connection Into the Future
INTRODUCTION: My Uneasy Journey Into the Twilight
By the time my parents were in their late seventies, I had lived two hours away for more than thirty years. I called most Sundays. I brought my daughters down for an afternoon every few months and on holidays. That was about as much closeness as I could tolerate given some pretty uncomfortable family dynamics. I told myself that I was much more independent and grown-up than my younger sister, who bought a house a few blocks from my parents and lived near them all those years. Not exactly.
When my mother started having serious health problems, my sister, my only sibling, was the one who helped out. I was relieved that she was there. I felt, a little guiltily, that I was off the hook. In fact, like so many people I’ve met since, I was clueless. I thought I’d left my first family, for good. No one told me that whether I wanted to or not, whether I embraced it or fled from it, my family would, in some form, come back to me. I had no idea that I was entering a new developmental crisis in the life of my original family, or that there even was such a crisis lying in wait.
I didn’t realize that something new was expected of me when my parents got old, that I would need to make a developmental leap, emotionally. They were still my parents and I was still their child—with many of our old reactions to one another intact—but now I needed to understand that they were also simply two elderly people, who perhaps needed something from me.
It also never occurred to me to suddenly step up and give my sister support. We weren’t close; we talked only a couple of times a year and saw each other on holidays. Getting together with my family provided some deep satisfactions, but being with them was also profoundly uncomfortable. Our family dynamics were riddled with anger, criticism, guilt, neediness, and indirection, but also love. And the love would prove significant. In my own defense (and this is true in so many families I’ve met since then) understanding the new psychological demands of this time are far from easy. Even in the healthiest families, our parents’ aging and mortality evoke outsized, often distorted, feelings in all of us. And, even at the best of times, family dynamics are hard to change.
I didn’t manage all this very well. After my mother died, my father’s hurt at my lack of involvement, my sister’s anger—and an avalanche of my own feelings of guilt, regret, and sorrow—descended on me. Bit by bit, I struggled to mend my relationship with my father before he died and, in general, to respond better to the new demands of this time of life. It felt good to be there for my father in this new way. After he died, I was surprised, to discover how much my relationship with my sister mattered to me, given how little contact we’d had. I am still in the process of repairing that relationship.Up until this point I’d considered myself psychologically astute and self-aware. In my work as a journalist, I regularly covered subjects rooted in human relations: family, marriage, and individual development. In my years of reporting for major magazines, I’d interviewed many psychologists, therapists, and researchers. I knew a lot, but not about this….
HOW THIS BOOK IS ORGANIZEDThe four parts of this book reflect the phases of the twilight transition, as most families encounter them. At the end of each chapter you’ll find strategies for improving sibling interactions over specific issues. Throughout the book, you will find boxes that offer research sidelights and statistics, and practical suggestions, as well as the occasional note on usage.
In Part One, I’ll take you through your initial confrontation with your parents’ aging and explore why it can be so difficult to get an accurate take on how they are doing, and why siblings may view their parents’ changing needs so differently.
Part Two deals with how we react when certain siblings assume, and others avoid various aspects of caring for aging parents, from simple needs to more complicated medical, financial, or legal issues: becoming the family caregiver, a parent's power of attorney, the administrator who interviews aides and geriatric care managers.
Part Three moves further into the darkest part of the twilight, as we watch our parents decline and die. For many people, this is the roughest and most emotional passage, often made more painful by dementia. How we behave toward each other as we prepare to gather at the deathbed can affect our relationships for years to come.
Part Four sifts through the emotional challenges of grief, recovery, and the reinvention of our original family. Given the unique relationship between any child and parent, each sibling will experience the loss of a parent differently... The often-loaded issue of inheritance also figures into this final phase, as does the emotional legacy of our parents.
By the end of this life-passage, many of us will have learned to value each other more now than before the twilight years. If we have a connection with a sibling—a cherished bond worth preserving, or perhaps a fractured one in need of repair—now is our opportunity. Our siblings, no matter how we view them and how they view us, are our last link to our first family, and our best hope for its survival.
A glimpse of some of the book’s stories and insights, each with something to tell us about ourselves.
Dottie and Arlene— Chapter One, The Last Transition of Our First Family
Mrs. Keller, an impressively tall 91-year-old woman hobbled out, leaning on her cane, her face stony. Her daughters each took a deep breath. This moment was the climax of a year of contentious family meetings, and a decade of seismic shifts in their family since their father’s death. Dottie, a sweet-tempered woman with unruly curls, was chafing because her younger sister, was taking charge. She was floored when Arlene, crisp and efficient, declared, “Mom will go in the car with me. You follow.”
“I just shut down,” Dottie said, “and my sister rolled over me and my feelings by sheer force of personality.”
For Arlene, sitting at the wheel and seeing her mother’s stricken expression was awful.As soon as they got to their mother’s new home, Arlene channeled her emotions into a whirl of activity. When Dottie arrived, Arlene was in a frenzy of hanging pictures. Dottie stood there gaping. She’d taken photos of the farmhouse walls to help place the pictures in a familiar way. Soon, one after the other, their sisters showed up and shouted that Mom said she wanted a different picture up.
“But Mom just told me she didn’t want that one now,” Arlene repeated with increasing desperation.
Finally Arlene just walked out. “I couldn’t take it any more,” she said. “I was working so hard to make it good for my mother, and they criticized everything I did. The feelings just got to me. This was the end of a huge part of my life, my mom moving out of the place where I grew up, that was in our family for sixty years. It was huge."
Dottie felt even worse, especially after Donny took Arlene outside alone to talk business, seeming to exclude the rest of the family. The next day, Dottie took off to camp in the woods alone. "It was so hard to come out of that terrible deep hole," she said. "It took me weeks to recover."
A Family Reunion Unlike Any Other
Like so many of us, these siblings were struggling through one day in the long developmental transition of their original family. As we come together to deal with the needs of our aging parents, sweeping emotions like theirs—anger and helplessness, childlike needs and rivalries in tandem with mature behavior and life-changing decisions—often go with the territory. As we are thrust into prolonged and intimate contact with our sisters and brothers after decades in separate homes and lives, all our family history crashes down on us as we each look mortality in the face, up close—our parents’ and our own.
“It’s like being put down with your siblings in the center of a nuclear reactor and being told, ‘Figure it out,” Sara Honn Qualls told me. The University of Colorado geropsychologist, a practitioner in the emerging field of the psychology of aging, is one of a host of experts who have embarked on trying to understand this late-life convergence of the family.
This transition unfolds over several years, even decades, as we and our siblings reunite around our aging parents and their new needs. Over time we share or resist responsibilities for their health, well-being, and property, making decisions from the mundane to the literally life-and-death. But the twilight is not only a matter of solving practical problems and meeting practical needs. It is an existential crisis through which we will be transformed from the children of our parents to the elders of our family. It requires a critical recalibration of our sense of who we are and what our family is. It demands that we accept change and grow as people. How we navigate this passage with our siblings determines, in large part, whether we remain a connected family after our parents die, and what our connection will be like.
Just think about the enormity of this. Decades of life and change, the addition of partners and children, has made us different people from the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers we were. One of our parents is probably gone; both may be frail. Making our original family work together at this point can be like trying to crunch together a machine from a group of scattered and reshaped parts. It just doesn’t function the way it used to; we have to adapt what we’ve got to make it run. Even harder, our parents’ decline and dependency evokes powerful emotions from our earliest days, feelings that pull us backwards when we need most desperately to push forward and be more adult than we’ve ever been.
The Kellers’ reactions are typical. Before they re-assembled to deal with their increasingly frail mother, they had all gone different ways. There were marriages, divorces, remarriages, kids, and grandkids. By the time Dottie moved back to their hometown, twice-divorced and still a dreamy romantic, her younger sister Arlene had become a player in their town, a trusted financial advisor and confident leader. As Dottie found out, being older didn’t count for much anymore. Many things about these people and their relationships were different. As they confronted their mother’s new dependency, and glimpsed her mortality, they found themselves acting out of old needs, re-enacting old rivalries. They felt sad, angry, hurt, and confused. Yet, as I can attest after interviewing scores of siblings from twilight families, the Kellers did reasonably well overall.
These Kansas siblings are pioneers: we all are. “There are no role models for this, social worker Lynn Cibuzar told me. She and I were sitting at the conference room table of DARTS, a Minneapolis area non-profit serving seniors and their families. Cibuzar had led countless family meetings around that table to help beleaguered and conflicted sibling groups, with or without their parents, to hammer out how to work together, both for their parents’ sake and for each other’s as they coped with everything from elder care and housing to powers of attorney, from medical decisions to inheritance. “As families,” Cibuzar lamented, “we have no models for this. We’re all struggling through something new. I tell people, ‘This is not just your sister’s fault. We have to see the bigger picture, all the forces that have brought us here.’”