Sibling Conflict and Gender

Who will take care of Mom?

Posted Sep 22, 2016

Taking care of your elderly parents may strengthen the bonds with your siblings and intensify your sense that you can count on them. Our relationships with siblings are our longest, offering many opportunities to understand and work out unresolved issues that remain from childhood. This becomes critical in times of crisis, such as a parent’s sudden illness, or gradual decline. A group of siblings can become a team offering each other support and helping each other set limits. If there are only two siblings, they can be partners and divide the emotional and/or financial burden. (For more about taking care of elderly parents see this.)

In "What Did You Expect?", Play 2 of "The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family" written and directed by Richard Nelson which just opened at the Public Theater in Manhattan, Patricia Gabriel has taken out a reverse mortgage on her house without telling her children. When she moves into an elder-care facility, her children are shocked to find out that they cannot sell her house in Rhinebeck, New York to pay for it because there is little or no equity left in it. Daughter Joyce Gabriel is angry and contemptuous of her mother's poor judgment; she offers no money or emotional support and is going back to Manhattan to continue her own life. Son George Gabriel is sympathetic to his mother and willing to sell his house and move into his mother's house to care for her as well as take a full-time job in order to pay for her upkeep. The play presents the most common brother-sister conflict in caring for elderly parents—the splitting of responsibility.

Alex Harvey/
Source: Alex Harvey/

However, the fictional Gabriel siblings' reaction to having to take care of their mother is not the typical one. In reality, the sister is the one most likely to have the day-to-day responsibility, while the brother is most likely to be seen as the authority (i.e. the one who has the power of attorney, is executor of the will, and makes the major financial decisions). In most families there is one primary caregiver who is responsible for the care of the parent. The vast majority of them receive little or no help from their siblings. For a female, having all male siblings greatly decreases the chances of getting help. Thus, when siblings are of different genders, there is an interplay of gender roles and psycho-dynamics.

Discussions comparing the way sisters and brothers care for elderly parents parallel discussions of the gendered division of labor between husbands and wives. Husbands are more likely to undertake tasks that have clear and identifiable boundaries (e.g., mowing the lawn) and tasks that have greater discretion in how and when to complete them (e.g., minor household repairs). Wives, on the other hand, are more likely to take responsibility for aspects of family life that do not have clear and identifiable boundaries—keeping up relationships with family and friends, making sure the children are happy in school, etc. They also take primary responsibility for tasks that must be performed on a regular basis such as shopping, cleaning, bathing the children and cooking. In real life, as opposed to the theater, brothers and sisters divide caregiving responsibilities along similar lines.

But there is a third part to the trilogy about the Gabriel family and you never know how things can develop.

There's more material on siblings here.

For more on siblings and caregiving check out my book: Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn't Take Care of You. 

Source: RobertaSatow