Navigating Sibling Ties When Caring for Parents

"Tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburden'd crawl toward death." -- King Lear.

Shakespeare's tragedy of proud Lear and his three daughters -- two greedy and ruthless and one naively devoted -- is a tale of epic misery.

But in modern life, where the drama lacks colliding armies, there's still deep pain and bitter disappointment when sisters and brothers feud about an aging parent. When siblings join together, the most wrenching decisions and heaviest tasks are somehow lightened by mutual effort and goodwill.

Daisy Rosewarne, rigid with Parkinson's, clouded with dementia, can live at home in East Tawas, Mich., because her three daughters, each from a different marriage, found ways to share her care that reflect their different lives, talents and resources.

"Mom is our common bond. We love her -- and each other," says the oldest, Betty Clark, who lives with Rosewarne.

But when siblings fight, it's war. For some, once Mom and Dad are gone, they'll never speak to each other again -- if they even speak now.

According to a USA TODAY/ABC News/Gallup Poll, among boomers who provide care or financial assistance for an aging parent or stepparent, 10 percent say it has created a great deal of stress among the siblings. Another 20 percent report at least some stress among siblings.

Often, the seeds of dissension between siblings were sown when they were children, says Rona Bartelstone, a Fort Lauderdale social worker who pioneered geriatric care management in South Florida in 1981.

"If you want to know how you'll get along with your siblings when you all have to deal with your aging parents, think back. Did you get along when you were all under the same roof? If you didn't then, you won't now."

'Call and I'll be there'

Rosewarne reared her daughters to love and enjoy one another. Today, the sisters are an upbeat trio whose voices radiate good cheer.

Mom can't walk by herself now, "so whoever is taking her to the commode stands her up and walks her -- like dancing with a statue where you move her feet," says Clark, giggling at the image.

Clark, 57, is a tax assessor who works four days a week. State-paid aides provide care for her mother three days a week, and Mom attends a senior day care program one day. Then Clark, who is single, takes over the rest of the time.

But many weekends are enlivened by visits from Clark's youngest sister, Nancy Chin, 49.

Chin, who lives 120 miles away in Mayville, Mich., piles her husband and three sons, their bikes and their 130-pound pooch in a van and heads up to a condo on Lake Huron that Chin bought near Clark's house. The sisters take Mom to the beach for sun, family fun and a chance for Clark to go bike riding or swimming.

Chin pays for Mom's clothes and personal items. Middle sister Patricia Burnette, 53, of Apopka, Fla., sends money regularly. At least once a year, often more, Burnette comes to Michigan to take over her mother's care for several days. This allows Clark a vacation. "I tell Betty if she needs anything at all, 'Call and I'll be there,' " Burnette says.

"Sure, we fought as kids. We had all the sibling rivalries," Clark says. "But we also saw our mother and her sisters, our aunts, constantly close and enjoying each other almost every day. They were our model, our inspiration."

Not all siblings can say this.

"Battling siblings are an almost intractable problem. No one believes the others are doing as much as they are," says the Rev. John Paris, who teaches ethics at Boston College.

But he won't blame the boomers entirely. Paris sees parents' hands in their grown children's values and relationships.

Bad, alcoholic and neglectful or abusive parents age, too. So do parents who favored one child over the others, says Debbie Ahern, clinical services manager for Community Hospices of Washington in the District of Columbia. Their children may be united in their view of Mom or Dad: "No one wants anything to do with them."

Such cases are rare, however. Ahern notes that "80% of siblings work well together, but the remaining 20% take 80% of our time."

Even when sibling ties are frayed, Ahern says, "I'll try to get them all in the same room or on the speakerphone and insist they get along. I say, 'Help your loved ones -- not just the one in the bed but each other.' "

Sometimes that help is strained but polite.

Jeffrey Singer, 49, of Buffalo Grove, Ill., and his sister, Marcia Douglas, 55, of Round Lake, an hour away, have a quiet truce on their different ways of dealing with their 83-year-old mother, who is in an assisted-living facility near Singer. She's in constant pain with multiple medical problems, including crippling complications from diabetes and signs of dementia.

"We could fight all the time: 'You should do this. You should do that.' But we don't. We just try to stay focused on Mom," Douglas says.

Douglas' life is jam-packed with her marriage, her grandchild and her full-time job managing a hospital lab.

"The five minutes of peace and quiet I have I really don't want to be visiting in a nursing home. I talk to Mom more than I see her, and I see Mom as much as I can. When I do, she'll say, 'I haven't talked to you in years. Do you still live here?' "

Douglas says her mother is well insured, and her brother does a good job managing her money. "I haven't had to put up a cent. My brother does take care of the emergencies. He and his wife, who doesn't work and has more time to do stuff, let me know what happens. I have no complaints. They have never said they want me to do more than I do."

True, Singer says.

"Why fight? It's on my sister to pick up the phone and say, 'How can I help?' I've given up asking. She is who she is."

Singer, father of three and partner in an accounting firm, is pulled by competing demands of family and work. "You can't tell a client, 'I didn't finish the work because I had to deal with my mom. How about next week?' "

He praises his wife, Andrea, for dealing with near-constant emergencies great and small -- from a rush to the hospital to a call for more Depends.

Singer and Douglas continue to speak, to meet for major family occasions. But the chances of any close friendship after Mom dies, both say, are remote.

Two against one

Sheryl Gonia, 45, of Kewaskum, Wis., and her sister Shannon Gardipee, 35, of Hartford, Wis., are at odds with their brother, Michael Gardipee 41, of Grafton Wis., over whether they should take their paraplegic mother home from a nursing home.

They did it before. When an infection left their mother, Judith, paralyzed below the waist, "we were all on the same page" about getting her home, Shannon Gardipee says. She lived with her mother and got help from Gonia on weekends.

Michael helped "now and then" but was uncomfortable with the personal care she needed, Shannon says.

Complications forced their mother back into surgery and now custodial care, covered by Medicaid. Just 66 years old, she could go home again with a complex arrangement of aides coming by and her going out to a senior day-care program. But there's a cascade of obstacles.

Judith doesn't want to go to day care. They can't afford live-in care. Shannon can't move in again.

Michael, who pays the $100 a month for phone and cable TV bills at the nursing home, is working and married with two young sons. Gonia works full time and has two teenage daughters and a husband disabled by a heart condition. She is no longer speaking to her brother. She says: "This is his mother who raised him. He should be willing to do what she wants. I know she needs to be safe. But he can't take away her dream."

Michael, who encourages their mother to make independent forays from the nursing home to shop and socialize, chafes at being cast as the dream-killer.

"It's a touchy situation to tell your parent, when she's begging to come home, that reality is that the care she needs eclipses what she can get there. I'm the boy. I'm the engineer. Maybe I think more practically, less emotionally, than my sisters. I say she's not in a position to come home. I'm sad, but it's still my opinion."

Considering the strains with his sisters, he says: "People get tired. People say things they don't mean. People get hurt. I ask myself, 'Did I do the best I could?' Sometimes I wonder."