Kathleen Wittstock's two younger sisters always considered her their parents' favorite--and the only one who could stand up to their formidable mother. So they probably weren't surprised when Wittstock, 65, a retired teacher in Medina, Ohio, persuaded her ailing parents to move nearby so she could look after them. Sometimes Wittstock secretly wished her sisters, who lived in Texas and Kentucky, would help more, but she also confessed that the task was easier without them--less drama for her to deal with.
After their father died in 1994, Kathleen wanted to apply for legal guardianship to put their increasingly resistant mother in an Alzheimer's unit, but she wanted her sisters to agree. "I felt it would be easier for all of us," she explains, "if we came to that conclusion together." And that's when the wounds of childhood really divided them. The youngest sister--described as the peacemaker--could not bear the rage her mother was sure to feel. "My sister had a fantasy," Wittstock says, "that Mom would get better and that she could take Mom to lunch and buy her pretty things."
It took four years and 15 police reports before the youngest sister gave in and agreed that Kathleen should become their mother's guardian. Wittstock assumed guardianship in 2004. By that time, their mother was living alone and unkempt in her condo with no food in the house and the gas turned off. Now Mom is safely ensconced in an assisted-living home, and Wittstock is proud of what she accomplished with her sisters. "Our relationships are not always great," she says, "but we work at it."
If you're a 50-year-old with 80-year-old parents, you may think that the sibling rivalries and parental hurts of your childhood are history. Fat chance. Simmering resentment between siblings has a nasty way of re-erupting as boomers confront the reality of caring for aging parents. "We have an unexpressed wish that our parents will someday acknowledge the injustices done us," notes University of Pittsburgh elder-law professor Larry Frolik. "Someday Mom will understand that I'm as smart as my rich older brother or will finally admit, 'Honey, your husband's really a swell guy.'"
Of the dilemmas adult children must confront at that point, caregiving--who does it, where it is done, how it is shared (or not)--is one of the most charged. The practical tasks occur in the midst of one of our most difficult emotional passages as adults. Our parents' frailty forces us to confront our own mortality. And in that emotionally volatile atmosphere, the psychic baggage from childhood complicates the important work of caregiving.
Those issues are complex, and families differ in countless ways. Yet elder-care specialists see common patterns emerge among siblings as the death of a parent looms. One such dynamic is a renewed competition for their parents' love and favor. "You become needy children again, not getting enough of the goods," says Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford, a professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis.