Planning for Your Parents’ (Or Your) Old Age

Who will care for your parents? For you?

Posted Aug 15, 2011

It is wonderful when brothers and sisters agree on decisions about and pitch in with parents' care, but it is often not the case. According to a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, only one-third of siblings help in caring for their parents. Physical distance, work obligations, the influence of daughter- and son-in-laws, old wounds, and damaged feelings remain or create family divides you never thought possible in your family-any one of which can alter contributions grown children can or are willing to make.

Long-distance siblings participate even if only in emotional support; however, much of the support is conflicted. For instance, a distant sibling may feel his sister or brother is doing an inadequate job. Barbara Friesner, founder of AgeWiseLiving and a specialist in resolving elder-care and generational issues, points out that "It is logical that the bulk of the care and day-to-day issues generally fall to the daughter, who is usually the sibling who lives closest to the parent(s) in need."

Women, hence daughters, "are conditioned to be the ones who make others happy," explains Francine Russo in her book, They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. "Even in this postfeminist era, we [women] experience higher expectations on all fronts." When it comes to looking after a parent, she adds, "Caregiving can become a one-man show, but it is likelier to be a one-woman show."

These responses to the post Who Will Care for Mom and Dad? underscore what Russo discovered:

  • Anonymous wrote: I have 2 sisters. One "can't handle the stress" and the other is "a selfish bitch on wheels." Does that sum it up for some of you caretaking children out there in similar situations? As I have heard many a person state "there is always one" who gets the brunt of the work.
  • Elizabeth commented: I'm an only and took care of my mother. Though it can be lonely, look at friends and their sibling disagreements over caring for parents, and I sure am glad I didn't have to do that, too!

"Parents often idealize the relationship they imagine for their children. Whether or not these parents got along with their own siblings, they imagine that their children will be close," notes Russo. "Some even decide to have a second child partly to give the first the "gift" of a sibling; they express hope that when they are old or after they die, their children can look to one another for love and support. The irony here is that an only child's longing for an idealized sibling in the twilight is often equally matched by the yearning of people who have flesh-and-blood siblings. They feel a void that their real sibling does not fill."

You can't predict how or if your siblings or children will share the burden of meeting parents' needs later in life. Sometimes old rivalries and resentments rear up, other times, siblings defect. As it turns out, siblings, willing or not, can have a hard time looking after their older parents amicably together. When interviewing parents and adult children for my book, The Case for The Only Child: Your Essential Guide, I heard a form of Merilee's story repeatedly: When Merilee's mother had a heart attack, she had no expectations her brothers would be there for their mother in spite of her fond memories of growing up together. Her brothers do not help. "In this situation, I feel like an only child," she says.

Similarly, Meredith realizes she cannot count on children to serve as her safety net. "I have one daughter and I'm thinking of not having another, and sometimes I tell my husband that perhaps we should have another child so she'll have help when we get old. The truth is, who is to say that the two of them will take care of us, who is to say that she'll take care of us if she stays an only child? There is no guarantee. One cannot have an only child or many children with the expectation that they'll take care of you when you grow old."

On the subject of having more children so they can look after you, another woman remarked, "How egotistical is that!" In almost all cases it is best to prepare by thinking ahead, putting money aside for your care if you can and signing health care directives so your child or children don't have to make these heartbreaking decisions.

When siblings disappoint, it may be better to rely on partners, spouses, cousins and other extended family...and, of course, good friends. Or, you might consider the alternative solution some Chinese parents take: Elderly couples who feel abandoned by sons who have left the country hire young adult women as "daughters" (some paid, some not) to visit and talk with them on weekends. The women also stop by to cook, clean, or play cards.

Copyright 2011 by Susan Newman

References: 

Lui, Melinda with Hennock, Mary, "Playing with Old Blood Rules: With the death of filial piety and the rise of 'kids for hire,' no Chinese family value is sacred anymore," Newsweek International Edition: March 17, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/2008/03/08/playing-with-the-old-blood-rules.html.

Merrill, Deborah. "Conflict and Cooperation among Adult Siblings during the Transition to the Role of Filial Caregiver," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,1996, Vol. 13, Issue 3, e-mail correspondence, July 1, 2008.

Newman, Susan. The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide (Health Communications, 2011)

Roff, L., Martin, S, Jennings, L., Parker, M., and Harmon, D., "Long Distance Parental Caregivers' Experiences with Siblings: A Qualitative Study," Qualitative Social Work, September 2007, Vol. 6 (3):315-334.

Russo, Francine. They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Survive Their Parents' Aging without Driving Each Other Crazy (New York: Bantam Books, 2010)