During childhood, sisters and brothers are a major part of each other’s lives, for better or for worse. As adults they may drift apart as they become involved in their own careers, marriages and families. But in later life, with retirement, an empty nest, and parents and sometimes spouses gone, brothers and sisters often turn back to each other for a special affinity and link to the past. “In the stressful, fast- paced world we live in, the sibling relationship becomes for many the only intimate connection that seems to last,” says psychologist Michael Kahn of the University of Hartford.
Friends and neighbors may move away, former coworkers are forgotten, marriages break up, but no matter what, our sisters and brothers remain our sisters and brothers. This late- life bond may be especially important to the “Baby Boom” generation now in adulthood, who average about two or three sibling apiece. High divorce rates and the decision by many couples to have only one or no children will force members of this generation to look to their brothers and sisters for support in old age.
And, as psychologist Deborah Gold of the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development points out, “Since people are living longer and are healthier longer, they will be more capable of giving help. ” Critical events can bring siblings together or deepen an existing rift, according to a study by psychologists Helgola Ross and Joel Milgram of the University of Cincinnati. Parental sickness or death is a prime example. Ross and Milgram found that siblings immersed in rivalry and conflict were even more torn apart by the death or sickness of a parent.
Those siblings who had been close since childhood became closer. In a study of older people with sisters and brothers, Gold found that about 20 percent said they were either hostile or indifferent toward their siblings. Reasons for the rifts ranged from inheritance disputes to animosity between spouses. But many of those who had poor relationship felt guilt and remorse. A man who hadn’t spoken with his sister in 20 years described their estrangement as a “festering sore.
Although most people in Ross and Milgram’s study admitted to some lingering rivalry, it was rarely strong enough to end the relationship. Only 4 out of the 55 people they interviewed had completely broken with their siblings and only 1 of the 4 felt comfortable with the break, leaving the researchers to ask, “Is it psychologically impossible to disassociate oneself from one’s siblings in the way one can forget old friends or even former mates? ” As brothers and sisters advance into old age, “closeness increases and rivalry diminishes,” explains Victor Cicirelli, a psychologist at Purdue University.
Most of the elderly people he interviewed said they had supportive and friendly dealings and got along well or very well with their brothers and sisters. Only 4 percent got along poorly. Gold found that as people age they often become more involved with and interested in their siblings. Fifty- three percent of those she interviewed said that contact with their sisters and brothers increased in late adulthood. With family and career obligations reduced, many said they had more time for each other.
Others said that they felt it was “time to heal wounds. A man who had recently reconciled with his brother told Gold, “There’s something that lets older people put aside the bad deeds of the past and focus a little on what we need now…especially when it’s brothers and sisters. ” Another reason for increased contact was anxiety about a sister’s or brother’s declining health. Many would call more often to “check in” and see how the other was doing. Men especially reported feeling increased responsibility for a sibling; women were more likely to cite emotional motivation such as feelings of empathy and security.
Siblings also assume special importance as other sources of contact and support dwindle. Each of us moves through life with a “convoy” of people who supply comfort and nurturance, says psychologist Toni C. Antonucci of the University of Michigan. As we age, the size of the convoy gradually declines because of death, sickness or moving. “Brothers and sisters who may not have been important convoy members earlier in life can become so in old age,” Gold says. And they do more than fill in gaps. Many people told Gold that the loneliness they felt could not be satisfied by just anyone.
They wanted a specific type of relationship, one that only someone who had shared their past could provide. This far- reaching link to the past is a powerful bond between siblings in later life. “There’s a review process we all go through in old age to resolve whether we are pleased with our lives,” Gold explains. “A sibling can help retrieve a memory and validate our experiences. People have said to me, “I can remember some with my spouse or with friends. But they only person who goes all the way back is my sister and brother. ”
Cicirelli agrees that reviewing the past together is a rewarding activity. “Siblings have a very important role in maintaining a connection to early life,” he says. “Discussing the past evokes the warmth of early family life. In validates and clarifies events of the early years. ” Furthermore, he has found that encouraging depressed older people to reminisce with a sister or brother can improve their morale. Some of the factors that affect how much contact siblings will have, such as how near they live, are obvious. Others are more unexpected-for example.
Whether there is a sister in the clan. Cicirelli found that elderly people most often feel closet to a sister and are more likely to keep in touch through her. According to Gold, sisters, by tradition, often assume a caretaking and kin- keeping role, especially after the death of their mother. “In many situations you see two brothers who don’t talk to each other that much but keep track of each other through their sisters,” she says. Researchers have found that the bond between sisters is strongest, followed by the one between sisters and brothers and, last, between brothers.
Sisters and brothers who live near each other will, as a matter of course, see more of each other. But Cicirelli says that proximity is not crucial to a strong relationship later in life. “Because of multiple chronic illnesses, people in their 80s and 90s can’t get together that easily. Even so, the sibling seems to evoke positive feelings based on the images of feelings inside. ” Gold’s finding support this assertion. During a two- year period, contact among her respondents decreaed slightly, but positive feelings increased.
Just the idea that the sibling is alive, that ‘there is someone I can call,’ is comforting. ” Although older people may find solace in the thought that their siblings are there if they need them, rarely do they call each other for help or offer each other instrumental support, such as loaning money, running errands of performing favors. “Even though you find siblings saying that they’d be glad to help each other and saying they would ask for help if necessary, rarely do they ask,” Cicirelli points out.
Gold believes that there are several reasons siblings don’t turn to each other more for instrumental help. First, since they are usually about the same age, they may be equally needy or frail. Another reason is that many people consider their siblings safety nets who will save them after everything else has failed. A son or daughter will almost always be turned to first. It’s more acceptable in our society to look up or down the family ladder for help than sideways. Finally, siblings may not turn to each other for help because of latent rivalry.
They may believe that if they need to call on a brother or sister they are admitting that the other person is a success and “I am a failure. ” Almost all of the people in Gold’s study said they would rather continue on their own than ask their sister or brother for help. But she found that a crisis beyond control would inspire “a ‘rallying’ of some or all siblings around the brother or sister in need. ” Despite the quarreling and competition many people associate with the mere mention of their sisters and brothers, most of us, Gold says, will find “unexpected strengths in this relationship in later life. ”