Singletons

The world of only children

Who Will Care for Mom and Dad?

When parents need support which siblings respond?

In most families, an inequity exists when it comes to adult offspring caring for their parents. One sibling doing a disproportionate amount of care often breeds heavy doses of friction and resentment.

In a comment to an earlier Singletons blog (Is One Child The New Traditional Family?), Jody, a 33-year-old only, wrote, "I liked being an only child and did not want siblings...The only thing I struggle with today, as I've gotten older—my mother passed away almost 7 years ago and I feel I have a responsibility to my father to keep him comfortable and moving along in life—it's rough when your parents just have only YOU to rely on. That is when I envy siblings that can pass their parents around..."

But, how many siblings actually share the care? The research in this area reflects that sibling support of parents can be problematic. Some siblings want to help, but circumstances such as work obligations, distance, or immediate family needs prevent stepping in to do their "part." Other siblings merely ignore the situation (or, giving them the benefit of the doubt, can't face the reality of an ill or needy parent), shirking what should be their duty. Excuses abound for not being available and irritate and anger the primary care-giving sibling.

Lucinda Roff, professor of social work at the University of Alabama, studied "Long-distance parental caregivers' experience with siblings" and discovered that hometown siblings had different expectations and experiences than siblings living at a distance. According to Roff, distance siblings participate even if only in emotional support; however, much of the support is conflicted—a distant sibling may feel his sister or brother is doing an inadequate job.

Other researchers found tensions mount, rivalries intensify, and siblings have trouble communicating about the care of their parents. It's logical since the bulk of the care and day-to-day issues generally fall to the sibling who lives closest to the parent(s) in need, most often a daughter, and/or to the sibling who is most financially able.

It seems unfair yet understandable that the less involved sibling would feel she or he could do a better job and is unhappy with the local sibling's care of their parent. Roff offers a sensible solution to aid in sibling cooperation and to help avoid damaged feelings and resentment: Plan a division of "labor" before the need arises. For only children, she suggests identifying extended family members who would be willing to help if and when the time comes. Aunts, uncles and cousins have more of a choice; if a singleton feels a relative is lukewarm about pitching in, she can ask another.

The problems that arise between siblings at the point they are called on to help a parent are based on family history—who was the favorite or perceived favorite, who had more needs or more attention, who received more financial aid from parents—that can either bond or put siblings at odds. In her study, "Conflict and Cooperation Among Adult Siblings During the Transition to the Role of Filial Caregiver," Deborah Merrill, associate professor of sociology at Clark University, reported that only one-third of those interviewed received assistance from a sibling in caring for a parent. That's enough to make any care-taking sibling's blood boil and is a situation the only child avoids because the only child has been prepped and knows he or she will shoulder the responsibility to care for or arrange care for her parents.

I've recently been monitoring an elderly aunt with health issues and no children. Being the lone relative in close proximity, at times the demands constitute a full-time job. I often feel like an only child, but knew for decades I would be "the one." My brother lives halfway across the country. "The distant sibling," Roff points out, "is typically present for only a short period of time, often at a time of crisis."

Mine is a typical scenario. Yes, it's wonderful to have support during a parent's health crisis or long-term care, but in reality where does the assistance come from? Your siblings? Friends? Your partner? What form does it take? Emotional support in regular or occasional phone calls? On-the-spot help in making hard decisions? Spelling you by visiting your parent, arranging medical assistance, or managing a parent's finances while you take care of daily needs?

Who Will Care for Mom?

A former talk show host told me about the in-fighting among her four siblings. "I wish I were an only child," she said, "then I could make all the decisions about my mother's care. Instead, my siblings and I battled over which one of us had the most time, where Mom would live, how we would help. It was quite disgusting and upsetting. Not a new situation," she added. In different arenas the squabbling had been going on for decades and was, in large part, why both she and her husband, also one of four, decided to have an only child.

Who fares better—those with or without sibling support—depends on the relationships you had with your parents and siblings growing up and if family values promoted helping each other and your parents, Merrill noted. Our elder care is not something we think about when having or raising our child or children. And, is it wise to bear children with the intent that they will "pass you around" harmoniously when they are adults and you need their help?

There are many tales of siblings pitching in and being there for their parents and each other...but do the stories of sibling discord outweigh the positive ones? Jody's word "envy" may not be the right one.

Related: Planning for Your Parents’ (Or Your) Old Age

Copyright @ 2008 by Susan Newman

Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her latest book is The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide.

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