Anyone with siblings whose parents are getting older should check out a new book by longtime journalist and author Francine Russo, They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy (Bantam, 2010). In it, she floods light on an underdiscussed, highly emotional life stage that can strain even the strongest of sibling bonds: what she calls the "twilight transition," when brothers and sisters who long ago left the families in which they were raised—and in some cases haven't spoken in years—are hurled back together as adults to grapple with their parents' aging, illness, and death. "It's the new life crisis of our original family," she writes. And it can get ugly. U.S. News chatted with Russo, and here are edited excerpts:
Why did you write this book?
This is one of those intersections of the personal and the professional. While I was a journalist on the boomer beat, I was covering caregiving, aging—many boomer issues—and I also had a column [and] people wrote to me. Many had issues with their siblings. At the same time, my parents were aging, and my sister was in my hometown taking care of them. I was pretty clueless about what was expected of me. Nobody actually asked me to do anything, but tensions ran really high. We just kept doing what we had always done. I called on Sundays and went to visit every few months for an afternoon—that's what I always did. At my mother's funeral, I saw my father and my sister holding each other up and weeping. I was shattered. I was ashamed because I finally got it—what they'd been through without my help—and I began looking for answers as a journalist, interviewing experts and siblings. I really was interested in the psychology because I'm not really a bad person and I'm not usually psychologically clueless, and yet I got it all wrong. So I started looking for answers.
Why do you say that the "twilight transition" is new in our time?
The average person is living 30 years longer than in 1900—30 years! People used to die of heart attacks, they used to die of diabetes, they died of cancer, but there weren't treatments that kept these people alive for 10 or 15 years with these ailments. Our parents are living for much longer times and longer with chronic illnesses, which means they need help. That's new. That's totally new.
If you look at the latest caregiving stats from the AARP, there are 43 million people taking care of a parent or elderly relative, and 91 percent of them say they do not share the responsibilities equally with anybody; 51 percent—more than half—say they do it alone. Now, you have got to figure at least 80 percent of those people have siblings, and there's got to be a huge story in that.
Are most people prepared to deal with this period?
Nobody is really prepared to deal with it. We think of our parents as eternal. This stage of life, for everybody in the family, evokes very old and very deep feelings. Everybody is going to react and overreact based on things that are not about what's going on right now. They're not about whether Mom moves to this assisted living versus that assisted living. They're really about old things. Without realizing it, we get caught up in sibling rivalry again. So we're arguing about whether she should eat health food or go to the major cancer clinic. But the ferocity of the feelings we have comes from somewhere else. People [should] just remember one thing: that they're not the only person losing their parent; [everyone] is going through it. Cut each other a little slack. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Have a little compassion—even if somebody isn't behaving well according to your standards.
What if siblings can't seem to do that?
There's a whole new field of professionals who can help: geriatric care managers. I'm a big fan of geriatric care managers. Their client is the old person, but they can help all the siblings communicate. For example, let's say your brother lives in California and you're in New York, and whatever you tell him about Mom he doesn't believe because he doesn't want to. Then he gets a call from the geriatric care manager, and she very factually lays out your mother's condition. What's going to come up in the future. What her needs are now, so your brother doesn't have a chance to say, "Oh, that's just my sister being hysterical or complaining." The manager can also say, "Listen, this is too much work for one person. Let's have a meeting or a conference call and talk about assigning responsibilities." If siblings really can't stand each other, they don't even have to talk to each other. The person in the middle, the professional, can help coordinate. There are also social workers.
Have you come across siblings suing each other?
Yes, I have. I was told by one geriatric care manager of two sisters who disagreed about whether their mom who had dementia could live alone, and clearly she could not. The sister who lived closest said, "Mom is fine," and the daughter who lived far away sued for guardianship for her mother so that she could place her in a facility. That kind of thing happens. Also over end of life. If one sibling wants to pull the plug and has the power of attorney, the other may sue to stop it from happening. And of course, it happens over inheritance. A lot of people don't realize it, but if they have the power of attorney, legally they are a fiduciary, which means they have to keep records and receipts and account for where the money is going, which can be very hard if you're the caregiver and you're overwhelmed. For the person in that situation, I would say: Even if it's a pain in the butt, send an accounting to everybody else in the family, just an E-mail once a month or whatever. Even if they're not asking, getting the information gives them a reason to trust, not to distrust.
What do siblings who positively navigate this transition do that others don't?
They accept that it's a family responsibility. They talk about it together. They talk about it early and often. And they do what sharing is possible.
Are there any positives to the "twilight" period?
There is a huge opportunity here for people to grow. To see their siblings as the adults they are now rather than the people they remember from childhood and also to see their parents as separate human beings who are going through their own struggle and facing their end. It's really hard, but seeing it, accepting it, being there for your parents in whatever ways possible can be hugely fulfilling and satisfying. Also good news: After the last parent dies, we tend to feel a really strong pull toward our siblings as the last people who are part of our original family. Maintaining that connection can be a really valuable thing. I know a number of people, including siblings I interviewed, who were able to make up after this period did break them apart. It is possible in many families. Not always.