Friday, July 16, 2010

"They're Your Parents, Too!"

ELDER CARE ADVICE: Russo offers advice for siblings caring for their parents.

IT IS ESTIMATED that approximately 43 million people in the United States are caring for an aging parent or relative. Many do not share this responsibility with anyone, although a majority have siblings. To address some of the unique struggles of siblings caring for their aging parents, MGH Senior Health presented a talk by Francine Russo, author of "They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy." The free event took place June 17 in the O'Keeffe Auditorium.

"If you have issues with your siblings about caring for your aging parents, you are so not alone," said Russo. "But there's also good news. There are enormous opportunities at this time for deep satisfaction, personal growth and closeness for siblings, even when that doesn't seem very likely."

Russo explained that a primary reason there are so many challenges among siblings coping with aging parents is that the situation is new and families have no model. "Our parents are living approximately 30 years longer than a century ago. They are not only living longer, but also living longer with chronic conditions for which they need care."

As parents age and become frail, the entire family experiences a new emotional passage -- the last phase of the original family in which the adult children were raised.

"Watching our parents decline and die brings us face to face with our own mortality in a whole new way," Russo said. "It stirs up old and deep feelings -- to be loved by our parents the way we wanted, to be acknowledged as just as smart or important as a sister or brother. Suddenly, sibling rivalry is back although we're not always conscious of it."

To research her book, Russo spent years interviewing more than 50 siblings with aging parents. She heard what they did right and what got them into trouble. She also surveyed academic literature and spoke with prominent practitioners in the field of geriatrics, psychology, elder law and related fields to offer guidance on how siblings can better understand and navigate their relationships.

Among her suggestions are the following:

• Encourage sibling dialogue versus going through a parent to obtain the true facts of a parent's condition.

• Never say to yourself, "I shouldn't have to ask," but ask for help directly, specifically and without inflicting guilt.

• Refrain from minimizing or criticizing a sibling's efforts to care for the parent. Offer as much emotional support as possible.

• Request what is realistic. For example, if a sibling dislikes spending time with a particular parent, ask him or her to pay for groceries rather than take the parent for a walk in the park.

For more information about elder care, contact Barbara Moscowitz, MSW, LICSW, of the Geriatic Medicine Unit, at 617-726-4612.

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