By Janice Arenofsky
Getting older isn’t for sissies, but neither is caring for an elderly parent when sibling rivalry reaches critical mass.
One example explains all: After a medical crisis, I suggested a change of meds to the charge nurse at the nursing home where my mother resided. She informed me that as “number two” daughter, I had virtually no say in routine or emergency matters. I would only be allowed to intervene on my mother’s behalf if my sibling was unavailable.
How did I attain the status of second class citizen? Through a seemingly innocuous series of events, when vascular dementia and old-age weariness had ganged up on my 86-year-old mother, my sister obtained Power of Attorney (POA in legal shorthand). Accustomed to yielding to an authoritarian spouse, my mother in the best of times was only too happy to abrogate her rights. Now, troubled by memory deficits and the stresses of managing her financial affairs, she welcomed this transfer of responsibility.
In similar fashion I, too, cast off responsibility. Led by naïve assumptions, I trusted that my sister would first consult me before making important decisions. I learned, only later, that this belief is at best optimistic; foolhardy at worst.
Relationships morph over time — they are neither static nor immune from outside influences. Close siblings often become estranged, alliances and allegiances shift, and maturity reveals hidden weaknesses. What once was easy-going and straightforward becomes conflicted and tortuous. Quite simply, you two are not on the same page — maybe not even reading the same book.
Sibling rivalry is a force to be reckoned with, but many sibs feel embarrassed to acknowledge its far-reaching consequences. I know I did. As a youngster, I watched as my mother gradually distanced herself from her three sisters and one brother. Her response to my “why” was always, “They treated me badly.” Though she was quite adamant, ambivalence occasionally reared its head. As a result, I received a mixed message: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Grow old with your sibling; don’t grow apart.
But personality characteristics often make this mandate difficult to follow. In my case, my sister’s competitiveness and drive, which as an adolescent and college student enabled her to get high grades and achieve ambitious career goals, now led to over control. She made unilateral health and financial decisions concerning my mother, informing me ex post facto.
This peaked when my sister whisked my mother, who was now confined to a wheelchair, to a new nursing home. Although I argued this would stress my by-now 89-year-old mother, my sister could and did ignore my wishes. Two days after the relocation, the staff diagnosed my vascular-demented mother as “agitated” and shipped her off to a psychiatric hospital. They could not cope with her “aggressive,” angry behavior. Pronouncing her a danger to herself and others, these paid surrogates could now legally transport my mother to a strange facility 40 miles away until such time the nursing home determined her behavior acceptable.
A month passed, and mom returned to the nursing home. Within weeks, she started refusing meds, then food and water. Throughout, I appealed to staff members to remove her from the Jerri chair (equipment that severely restrained her movements) and allow her to remain in a wheelchair. But since I did not have POA, I was powerless to insist. Finally, mom could not or would not speak to me on the telephone, leaving me to infer that her dementia had finally left her unable to communicate.
My mother died in her sleep a few days later. The same charge nurse who conferred on me second-class status said my mother had “just given up.”
Flash forward to the present. Another form of self-induced powerlessness dogs me: the disposal of my mom’s estate.
It would be easy to blame my sibling, but what led to my impotence was the failure to participate in the preparation of legal instruments when my mother possessed her full mental faculties. Also, I failed to recognize that my sister’s priorities had shifted — her bottom line for decision making now was the best interests of her children — even if those decisions ignored my needs. Further, my childish reticence to broach the subject of family finances and wills went against commonsense and self interest.
I had cruised for years with a false sense of complacency that stemmed from (a) denial (of death), (b) inertia, and sometimes a combination of both. I relied on compromise and cooperation to get me through the rough patches. I assured myself that the animosity and in-fighting other families experienced would not be replicated in ours. We were better than that. We would negotiate, we would communicate. Good sense would prevail.
We did none of that. Better to have balanced my pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna optimism with some old-fashioned, down-to-earth pessimism and skepticism. Then I would have behaved proactively. For sure, I would have pushed for a dual POA, even if the lawyers had advised against it.
As it turned out, all I could do after the funeral and burial was stand sadly by while the same charge nurse who had unnerved me with her succinct explanation of my legal status showed me to my mother’s former room.
“Sorry for your loss,” she said, handing me a large black plastic bag containing my parent’s personal effects. It was a burden I knew I could never put down.
Janice Arenofsky has written for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor, and E-Environment Magazine. Visit her website here.