Murphy’s Love: Aging Parents, Distant Siblings

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Dear Stacy,

My parents are aging and I live far away from them. I am anxious about their medical needs and know that the time will come when I will need to rely on my siblings to help out. I have a strained relationship with my siblings ever since I left home to move to the D.C. area. All of them stayed in the Midwest and have raised families there. I also have been countercultural by not marrying and not having kids (I am 45 years old). We just don’t have that much in common and as a result, they don’t often include me on emails regarding family business.

My concern is that my parents will fall ill and I won’t be informed and decisions will be made without me. I actually have a background in patient advocacy, so it’s not like I don’t have anything to contribute, they just don’t care about my opinions. Any time I bring this up, I feel really defensive and the conversation never leads to anything good. I’d appreciate advice about how to make my point without coming across as critical.

– On Eggshells

Dear Eggshells,

While it sounds like you might be gearing up for a fight that has yet to materialize, I usually come out in favor of this kind of advanced preparation. I wonder what it might be like to talk to your parents about your concerns now, before the feared medical issues arise? If you explain your desire to be included in family decisions, they might be able to set the tone when things start to shift.

Our parents wield enormous power when it comes to sibling relationships; this is why even retirees report regressing to childhood roles when around their elderly parents. If you feel comfortable talking to Mom and Dad about your concerns and wishes, they may be able to pave the way.

But at the same time, I hope you use this concern as an opportunity to explore your own role in the distance you feel from your siblings. Yes, they made very different choices than you did, but that doesn’t require them to be scornful about yours. Sometimes, when we feel like an “outsider,” we tell ourselves stories about what others “must be” thinking. Over time those stories gain a lot of power and feel like truth.

I wonder what your siblings might actually be thinking about your choices. Perhaps they have a bit of “small-fry syndrome” and are jealous of your freedom and bravery in breaking the family mold. Next time you interact, try to imagine what it feels like in their shoes — that’s empathy — and you might find yourself softening to their point of view.

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