No matter the gender, era, or temperaments of any adult sibling group, nothing will test their relationships quite as much as the challenge of tending to aging parents. Just as no two siblings got the same level of attention, validation, and love from Mom and Dad when they were children, so do no two give back to them in precisely the same way when the caretaking roles switch.
See also: Interview with Jeffrey Kluger.
Who should take the lead in looking after elderly parents can be a source of constant conflict, but certain patterns do emerge. Simple proximity can often be where the discussions begin and end. An adult child who lives five minutes away from the parents' home in Philadelphia is a lot likelier to be checking on them regularly than one who lives in San Diego — or even in New Jersey, for that matter. Gender, again, is critical, too. All other things being equal, the kin-keeping tendencies of a sister will emerge at this stage of a family's life as well, and when that happens, brothers are typically content to let the women take the lead. Birth order is another big player, with firstborns the likeliest to do the heavy lifting in caring for parents, last-borns the next likeliest, and middle children doing the least work. For the middling who always felt overlooked in childhood, there can be something of a flip-off quality to this, a conscious or unconscious way of punishing parents for perceived inattentiveness. For other middle kids, it may simply be a matter of habit. When your family of origin was always less central to your emotional life than it was to that of your older or younger siblings, you're accustomed to letting those brothers and sisters take charge. In general, says Catherine Salmon, "first- and last-born children are more likely to report being very close to parents and having more contact with them."
The fact that brothers and sisters often enter their parents' declining years knowing in advance — if only in an unspoken way — which one of them will be doing most of the elder care can help keep arguments to a minimum, since there are less likely to be any surprises. It's a lot harder to avoid problems when it comes to the much more complicated matter of dividing the shared inheritance.
Also of interest: Ways to deal with caregiver stress. >>
Reprinted from The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds of Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us by Jeffrey Kluger by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Kluger.