"It's Not Fair!" Sibling Rivalry in Caregiving


As we are all well aware, providing caregiving for our parent(s) is complicated and messy.   Siblings can often be both a blessing and a curse in this process, providing much needed relief and support, or perhaps creating additional stress and barriers to important decisions and resources.

Why is this the case?

When I taught Human Behavior and Development, I would often tell my college students that early life with our siblings was our “relationship school” – this was the environment in which we learned our social interaction skills, practiced conflict resolution, mediation, and setting boundaries, along with basic skills such as listening, empathy, and consideration and civility.  The degree to which these are mastered, or even practiced, varies widely from family to family and affects all of our later interactions.   I would also tell students to expect that when they return home, no matter their age, it is likely that they would ‘become’ 10 years old again, with regard to their feelings, reactions, and interactions with one another, as soon as they walked through the front door.

Siblings often find themselves with very different perspectives about family circumstances, despite growing up in the same environment Click To Tweet.  An example I used in the classroom:  two sisters in their late 80’s had been living together for several years.  One day, each received a copy of the exact same letter.  The letter was from a brother from whom they had not heard from in over forty years.  In the letter, the brother expressed his desire to reconnect with his sisters.

One sister, upon reading this, was overcome with joy and happiness at the thought of reuniting with her brother.

The other sister?  She was infuriated!  How dare he presume he could come into their lives at this late date after causing them years of anguish and sorrow?

Interesting.  Same family, same letter, two completely different perspectives.

Back to caregiving with siblings.  As we watch our parents age, it often stirs up childhood feelings that we may not even be aware of.  These feelings may result from the legacy of family dynamics:   birth order, old patterns, or identified roles from childhood (the ‘responsible’ one, the ‘caring’ one, the ‘baby’, and of course, the 'favorite').   Childhood battles may be revisited, unresolved wounds re-opened, and old rivalries re-emerge.

Recognizing that there are additional developmental leaps to make during this time, which will require significant psychological demands, is critical.  Even in the healthiest families, caregiving will present significant emotional challenges, in addition to the myriad of practical needs.  In her book “They’re Your Parents too!  How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy”, Francine Russo writes:  “It is very hard for any one person to grasp the 'big picture' of their family.  Rarely does one sibling fully understand a sister’s or brother’s relationship to their parents or the complex dynamics that bind them to each other. . . How could they?  This picture is so vast and thickly layered with everything from our parents’ value systems, the quality of their marriage, and their treatment of each child, to our individual relationships with each parent and sibling, and our multiple roles within our family.”

Regardless of the role we take in the caregiving process, the journey will be much smoother if we can try and understand what is happening internally, what motivates us, what we might be revisiting, and what feelings could be emerging. In future blogs I will discuss more specific, practical suggestions around managing sibling dynamics with regard to caregiving, but for today, I’d like to stick with trying to slow down, take a minute and notice what might be going on for us.

Ms. Russo points out:  “By the end of this life passage, many of us will have learned to value one another 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.”


About Author

Kim Andreaus

Work Life Program Manager

Kim Andreaus is the Aging and Eldercare Program Manager for Work/Life. She has experience in geropsychiatry; both inpatient and in a community mental health setting. In addition, she has been a faculty member at NCSU, UNC-CH and Wake Tech and has taught courses in gerontology and conducted training in geriatric mental health.


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