In our social gerontology practice we came across various degrees of sibling relationships and various aspects of the sibling relationship in adulthood, with a focus on middle and older adulthood. Closeness among elderly siblings, parental influence, social support, and death of a sibling are among the specific topics that will be addressed in this article. A number of factors contributing to the quality of the sibling relationship will also be considered. The subject of ‘Sibling Relationship in Later Years’, caught our fascination and we decided to do a bit of ‘talking’ to seniors about this. That’s how we interviewed Thirty elders who are sixty-five plus. Here is our findings.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

Many topics are more effectively elucidated through storytelling. Here are two illustrative narratives.

Jagannathan uncle gets courier every fort nightly without fail from his sister who lives far away in Pune. This has been a practice past several years, ever since he got admitted to our skilled nursing home. The younger sister sends her brother, ‘packets of chutney powder, curry bevu powder and his favourite, ‘authentic maharashtrian chirote’. Though hard of hearing, Jagannathan speaks to his younger sister every night before he retires. When asked about this closeness, Rukku Mamee (Rukmini) said, ‘Jaggu and I kind of irritated each other when we were kids; He stole my favourite ‘banana fritters’ when I am back from the school leaving me hungry and and angry, and he would hang around and irritate me till our mother intervenes’. It was a love-hate relationship those days. Rukku Mamee recollects the childhood. ‘But things have changed when he lost his wife to cancer and it was me whom he lean to for emotional help. Since then, not a day pass without us talking, though we live miles away.’

Though this story dates back to 2007, is a must when we write this article to show how ‘intense’ is the sibling relationship. Manjunath came to us in 2007 for the admission of his 47 year old sister who was in coma. In his 60’s, Manjunath is the typical ‘mason-turned-small-time-civil-contractor’, with all the trappings like rundown ‘Tata Indica’ and silver jewellery all over. Though not rich in terms of ‘affordability’, Manjunath wants the best treatment and care for his sister and that’s how he brought his sister from a remote village in Kadappa district. Though very expensive, he admitted her to Bangalore’s best hospital thinking she will come out of coma, and couple months into hospitalisation, he approached us for longterm care.

His words then, are an eye-opener to everyone. “Sir, I am no rich to get this treatment for my sister. In fact I am borrowing money from every source, but I don’t want her to die want of treatment. After all she is my sister and with me from day one and later only I got my wife and children’. That’s the intensity of that sibling relationship. Manjunath is the typical example of how a brother should behave highlighting the importance of sibling relationship and a solace when needed.

To know ‘the impact of a vibrant sibling relationship in later life’, we conducted a sort of interview with 30 seniors. Sibling relationships play out in unpredictable ways with unpredictable results. Majority agree that having a close relationship with brother or sister makes them secure in old age. But for few, they don’t bother and admit there are conflicts and family dysfunction dating back to years and none wants to mend these differences. In short, good sibling relationships are the norm, but bad sibling relationships happen and can have strong negative effects.

Sibling relationship starts from cradle and are often the only people with whom we have lifelong lasting relationships. For many people that means a built-in best friend for life. But even when this is the ideal scenario, unfortunately in many cases we see dysfunction. But once intense lifetime connections like that can be … messy at times, even in the strongest of bonds. We acknowledges that no sibling relationship will ever be perfect. The respondents told us that at some point in their life they fought and reconciled.

Navigating those relationships is difficult as we all pass through different phases and this happen when we split into another unit, with our ‘own family’ consisting of husband/wife and children. In this phase, we are influenced by the ‘new’ entrants in our life and they will catch our fascination. We noticed people who experienced serious negative life events in the past — divorce, addiction issues, run-ins with the law, financial problems or inheritance issues — more often had less supportive and more strained sibling ties.

There are significantly lower levels of sibling rivalry in later life as compared to rivalry in childhood and adolescence. However, this is not to say that sibling rivalry does not occur between ageing siblings. In fact, past rivalry patterns, for example, the belief that a parent favours one child over another, can still surface during times of conflict or stress. A common source of resentment between siblings is a feeling that a parent favoured one over the others. Parents feel that you may be ‘defiant’, ‘unyielding’ or ‘you may be ‘less successful’. And ultimately the growing resentment make them brand you as the prodigal son/daughter. It’s important in these situations not to be defensive, and to listen and appreciate a sibling’s perspective. Understand that your relationship with your sibling has nothing to do with your, ‘Parent’.

Parents who favour one sibling make the ‘big’ mistake by making comparisons between siblings will only go in a negative direction and will continue to foster jealousy between them. Though siblings start from the same playing field, birth order affects children’s experiences. Understand they have different experiences with different teachers and coaches and peers, all of which shape a person’s sense of self.

If your sibling relationships need a little rehab, or you’ve long fallen out of touch, there’s still hope. A little effort and throwing out the ‘ego’ baggage will bring back the warmth. Sibling ties are very active in younger days, then go through a period of relative dormancy due to many factors and eventually resurface when the siblings have more grey hairs and once again long-term. Various life transitions may rekindle bonds between siblings, as they reach out to and for one another. Life changes such as the illness or death of parents and other family members, divorce, widowhood, remarriage, and relocation nearby, often heighten sibling contact and support.

In our practice, we have seen things between siblings fall apart oftentimes when ageing parents need care or die — pent-up feelings of rivalry and jealousy erupt all over again, masked as petty fights ostensibly over who pays for Mom’s care or who takes the responsibility of Dad. More often, there is a single primary caregiver who feels like she is not getting any help from her brothers and sisters, which can lead to serious conflict. Most families get through their parents' illnesses just composed, establishing networks where the workload is divided pretty much equally.

Ideally, siblings serve as a special kind of attachment to one another in later life. Even though siblings in old age do not provide much instrumental support or each other in later years, expressive support, for example advice, encouraging words, moral or emotional support can be transferred and received from long distance and this type of relationship is more common among older siblings. Although the physical presence may not be possible or even sought frequently, most elders sincerely believe that his or her brother would come to their aid in a crisis time. Interestingly, relatively few individuals report depending on a sibling in old age although they list them as a support resource. Overall, siblings feel a safety net though in reality rarely mobilised but provides a sense of security.

If you have a surviving adult sibling in later life, you are blessed? In such cases you need to maintain contact and provide support to each other. A small study by us attempting to answer these questions have found that for a majority of older adults, siblings do live into old age and do choose to remain in touch with each other until death. Our experience past several years have taught us that relationships with siblings can contribute to life satisfaction, higher morale, fewer depressive symptoms, psychological well-being, and a greater sense of emotional security in old age. In short, a marked increase in sibling exchange, was demonstrated in later life. Additionally, factors influencing the extent of sibling contact and the importance of the relationship were geographic proximity, being without a partner, and a decrease in contemporaries who can share life review activities. Majority of interviewees told us that they talk to their siblings at least once in a week.

The loss of an adult sibling is often a significant one especially when you are in your 70’s or 80’s. When we asked about the loss of a sibling, most of them replied that it is devastating and almost comparable like spouse loss. Unlike spouse, too often no support or comfort is offered and the loss is not acknowledged. In reality, whether the sibling who died is nine or 90, the loss still wounds the heart. Yet our culture tends to under-appreciate sibling grief. When an older adult dies, the myth goes, it is the parents, spouse, and children of the person who died who suffer the greatest loss.

We seem to think that siblings are affected less by the death of a older brother or sister. Yet the truth is, the more deeply you feel connected to the sibling, the more difficult his or her death will be for you. And siblings—even when they have not spent much time together as adults—often have profoundly strong attachments to one another. Yes, the grief for the sibling is very real. And it may be very difficult for you as your spouse or children never acknowledge. In such scenario, the grieving person feels a void for receiving comfort. Here you must seek the support of other relatives or friends for sharing memories with those who knew the sibling well.

Our Interviews with these thirty people over the age of sixty-five revealed that interactions with sisters and brothers took on new meaning in late life. A common history of lifetime experiences made the sibling relationship unique in social networks in old age. Those with positive relationships found that frequent interactions with their siblings decreased feelings of loneliness, provided emotional support and validation of earlier life experiences, and built feelings of closeness and sibling solidarity. Despite receiving limited research attention in the past, we anticipate that, given increased longevity and the aging of baby boomers, more studies will delve into sibling relationships in adulthood and old age in the coming years.