This Isn’t Like Taking Care of Your Parents

Caring for an aging parent and caring for an ailing sibling share certain common ground.

The cast of characters is much the same, illness is generally involved, and the person being helped may not want assistance. It may be necessary to physically relocate somebody, and that somebody might not want to go. Unless you are unbelievably rich, money invariably figures into matters, particularly related to health care expenses. And when paid caregiving gets added to the equation, dollar signs fly through the air as if you’d stumbled onto the soundstage of a Thirties musical.

However.

The relationships you’ve had with your siblings are all different, and roughly on the same latitude. Relationships with your brothers and sisters are likely to be the longest ones of your entire life. Your parents are there for the first part, a partner and children may be around for the middle and final parts, but the sibs are mostly along for the entire journey, marching with you side by side through your family’s history.

So here’s what’s different:

The Natural Order Of Things

Taking responsibility for aging parents is a cultural expectation for most of us. It’s a social contract: your parents helped you and later you help them. Period.

But until actually thrust into a SibCare situation, most of us haven’t given a moment’s thought to caring for siblings. And why would we? In some internal photo album, we carry around snapshots of our siblings when we were all kids—healthy and active and foolhardy, ready to take on the world. And that’s often how we still see each other, even when irrefutable evidence shows a very different picture.

Ongoing Contact

In general, children of all ages remain in contact with their parents.

This contact may not be daily or weekly or even monthly. It may not involve regular dinners or shopping excursions or joint vacations or even celebration of major holidays together, though it usually does include awkward long distance holiday conversations.

The sibling situation can be very different, however, particularly if there have been major issues or problems over time. Estrangement may be the exception, but it happens. And even when sibs get along, they may be widely scattered, with only occasional communication among themselves.

Unresolved Issues

It’s entirely possible to have unresolved (and unresolvable) issues with parents, even when the combined parent and child ages total over 150 years. But at this stage in life, most of those issues are inactive. They’ve either been set aside, or you’ve managed to figure out a way to work around them.

Sibling issues, however, often feel more fresh. And for those who resolved differences by hitting the road and never looking back, they can be frozen in time.

Not Everybody Gets Involved In Parental Care 

Some parents died young and a number of those deaths were sudden and unexpected.

A second wave of our parents died in their sixties and seventies, often in less abrupt situations. Final care came from the other parent or a step-parent, with limited participation by any children, much less all of them. There might be a final visit, and almost always a church service with food back at the house, but if you weren’t living in town, you usually weren’t actively involved.

The reality is that not nearly as many of us have cared for aging parents as it feels like. We’ve simply heard so much from the people who have that it just seems like everybody.

Different Levels Of Expectation

Society is pretty clear on this one.

If you have a parent in need of help, you’re expected to come through. This is the person who paced and held you while you screamed during sleepless nights of colic. Who baked brownies for the school bake sale, found your missing mitten, taught you how to make a slow pitch, and waited anxiously for the sound of the garage door when you hit the road with a newly-issued driver’s license.

A sibling, however, is different. If you are inclined to walk away from a sibling illness, you might not seem like the world’s kindest person, but people won’t automatically recoil in horror. Anyone with siblings will understand that these can be problematic relationships.

So you’re more likely to get a pass, which makes it easier to walk away with minimal, or at least lessened, guilt.

The Possibility Of Recovery

When you assume responsibility for a parent’s care, you know that somewhere down the line, that responsibility will end and your parent will die, most likely before you do. Cold, but true.

However, it’s entirely possible that your ailing sibling will make a full and complete recovery from the physical problem at the heart of your current relationship. Your participation may even make that recovery possible.