By Elizabeth Stark
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...
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