Eighty-year-old Millie had always expected, when she got older, that her daughter, Becky, would be there for her. But Becky now lives 45 minutes away, works full time and has teenagers to chauffeur. Though Millie's two sons and daughters-in-law live close by and pitch in often, she prefers her daughter's company.
Becky, for her part, visits frequently but always sees the disappointment and disapproval in her mother's cold stare. She feels both guilty and peeved.
"Why can't Mom just accept that our current caregiving plan is the one that's most practical?" Becky asks her brothers in frustration.
They haven't an answer other than to say she's always been Mom's favorite. Hearing that makes Becky feel all the more guilty, as if she's supposed to quit her job, uproot her family and move into their mother's cramped home.
These siblings exemplify an unfortunate truth about caring for an aging parent: It is rarely an equitable enterprise. In the vast number of families, one of the siblings (generally a daughter) bears the brunt of the sacrifices. Who that child is may have little to do with practicalities. Among other factors, parental preferences affect caregiving choices and the relationships among daughters and sons.
These are some of the research findings over the past decade of Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, J. Jill Suitor of Purdue University and other social scientists who've studied aging mothers and caregiving. They have found that geographic proximity does shape whom mothers prefer to be their caregivers, but so do factors such as similarity of gender and emotional closeness. Mothers' choices have a powerful impact, dictating how most families divvy up the work. When those preferences are not honored because the chosen children are not willing, available or able, then the mothers may become disgruntled and the families as a whole may struggle.
How can conflict be minimized when a parent's wishes can't be met? There are no surefire solutions, but here are some ideas.