Communication Currents

Older couple holding hands

Storytelling: A Way for Adult Siblings to Cope with the Complexities of Caring for Aging Parents

May 16, 2017
Health Communication, Interpersonal Communication

With today’s longer lifespans, increasing numbers of adult children find themselves caring for their aging and/or ill parents. In a new study featured in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, authors Danielle Halliwell, Kristina A. Wenzel Egan, and Erica L. Howard explore how adult siblings use storytelling narratives to cope with the stresses and complexities of managing their parents’ care together.

The authors interviewed adult siblings about their experiences with providing care for their aging parents and how they cope, individually and with one another. The siblings’ experiences touch on three primary narratives: (in)equity, ideal versus real, and interconnectedness – all highlighting the importance of working together, expressing gratitude to one another, and displaying empathy.

Previous research on siblings found that those who support one another during times of physical and emotional trauma reported lower anxiety and psychological distress, as well as reduced loneliness and increased resilience over the course of their lifetimes. Thus, the authors of this study focused their research on how individuals use storytelling and create narratives to make sense of challenging relational events (CNSM, or communicated narrative sense-making) – in this case, the complexities of managing the health and care of aging parents. Some narrative examples include:

  • Feelings of frustration, disappointment, and guilt stemming from an imbalance of involvement and an inequitable division of tasks among siblings
  • Acknowledgment of the realities of a difficult and stressful situation, versus their idealized versions of the care they wish they could provide
  • Evolution of sibling relationships, for better or for worse, over the course of the experience

Who is providing care?

For the purposes of this study, the authors interviewed 20 adults between the ages of 41 and 66 years old. All but one was female, the majority were Caucasian, and all had between one and six siblings. Nine participants identified themselves as their parent’s primary caregiver, seven said that at least one of their siblings was equally involved, and four said they contributed less than their siblings. Of the 20, five reported on past experiences as their parent(s) had since passed away. All elder parents being cared for were between 70 and 99 years old.

Some challenges…and some positive outcomes

Many participants narrated stories of feeling frustrated with the unequal division of responsibility among their siblings. One participant reported that his older sister had distanced herself from the family, so he had taken on the entire burden of caring for his mother. Another participant said that even though her brother had access to their father’s online accounts and bills, she and her husband were the ones who had to manage it all.

My brother does what he wants, when he wants. He doesn’t respond to my dad’s needs as my dad has needs.

Yet others took pride in being the primary caregiver for their parent(s) and considered it a privilege, while viewing it as a missed opportunity for the other siblings to create memories. These participants “focused on the positive aspects of caregiving in order to manage any anger they felt toward their less-involved siblings and avoid additional stress,” the authors write.

One study participant’s narrative likened her family to a flock of birds who fly in a V formation to save energy and increase efficiency: “A flock of birds where when a bird gets tired or can’t do it, it drops back and another one takes the lead.” In this narrative, the authors note the extremes caregivers can feel in these stressful situations – exhaustion and triumph, gratitude and feeling trapped.

More connected than ever – for better or for worse

Ultimately, the experience of caregiving for parents seems to bind adult siblings together, in some instances creating opportunities for relational growth and reconnection. Some of the participants’ positive stories “revealed how the need to work together for their parent’s sake can encourage siblings to be more understanding of one another and leave behind past grievances.” Caregivers also expressed a newfound respect for their siblings after observing their capacity to love and act unselfishly throughout their experience together.

Your parents are kind of your soft place to fall and your sounding board. And when you don’t have that anymore because your parents are gone or not competent, your sibling becomes that person.

Unfortunately, however, some sibling relationships were damaged by the experience, at times due in part to decisions made by their parents. One participant said that after her parents chose her to be Power of Attorney over her sister, the siblings got into a screaming match and she had to threaten her sister with legal action when she felt she was being undermined. Another participant only communicates with her sister (their father’s primary caregiver) when necessary, for the sake of their dad.

Solutions from sense-making

The authors hope their findings can be used by medical personnel and mental health counselors working with family caregivers. “Because individuals often feel more control over stressors by organizing negative experiences into coherent narratives, professionals should encourage adult children caregivers to express their feelings in storied form,” they write. “Through the process of (re)storying their caregiving narratives, adult children can better adapt to the demands of caring for a parent and improve sibling relations.”

Within families, the authors recommend that siblings exercise empathy in their interactions with one another to manage expectations for equity, create a more realistic approach to caregiving, and strengthen sibling bonds.

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Halliwell, D., Wenzel Egan, Kristina A., and Howard, Erica L. (2017). “Flying in a V formation: themes of (in)equity, reality, and togetherness in adult siblings’ narrative explanations of shared parental caregiving.” Journal of Applied Communication Research, doi: 10.1080/00909882.2017.1320574.

About the author (s)

Danielle Halliwell

New Mexico State University

Assistant Professor

Photo of Danielle Halliwell

Kristina A. Wenzel Egan

Eckerd College

Assistant Professor

Wenzel Egan