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

May 11, 2017
New Research
Family, Health

Washington, DC—With today’s longer lifespans, increasing numbers of adult children find themselves caring for their aging and/or ill parents. Adult siblings frequently work together to manage parental care, and many encounter additional stress and complications because of this new partnership.

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 discuss findings from interviewing 20 adult siblings about their experiences with providing care for their aging parents. The siblings’ caregiving 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 who support one another during times of physical and emotional trauma found that the siblings reported lower anxiety and psychological distress, as well as reduced loneliness and increased resilience over the course of their lifetimes. The authors of this study focused their research on how individuals use storytelling and narratives to make sense of challenging relational events – 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 idealized versions
  • Evolution of sibling relationships, for better or for worse, over the course of the experience

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; another felt she didn’t have a specific role in the caregiving system because she lived out of town, away from the rest of the family; yet another expressed the significance of becoming closer to her sibling who became her sounding board in place of her mother.

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. Promoting this type of communication can lead to more flexibility and more compassion within a family, a more productive caregiving plan, and, potentially, closer siblings connections.

 

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Read the full article on Taylor & Francis Online here.

To arrange an interview with the study authors, contact Jenna Sauber at 202-534-1104 or jsauber@natcom.org.

About the National Communication Association

The National Communication Association (NCA) advances Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems.

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