Stress in American life has been a popular topic for a long time. We have been dealing with it from an early age; remember studying for tests in school or waiting for the college admissions letter? This was just the beginning. Whether it’s commuting, home repairs, deadlines, or caregiving, we have a lot of stress factors in our daily life. Some we can control, some we can’t. As we get older, we are often not as susceptible to some of the old stress factors, having more distance and maturity to deal with them. Or some of us are retired and have retired some of our work stress. But for many of us, the one stress that seems to survive and, for some people thrive, is family stress.
So many of us dread the holidays, which seem to come around with increasing frequency as we age. Relationships with siblings or parents that were tense growing up, seem to have gotten worse as time has gone by. It doesn’t matter that some of the disagreements are rooted in our teen years or earlier, these disputes that drove us apart have grown and festered with time and we have avoided dealing with them. I know people who have reconciled when a parent has died but shouldn’t we be thinking about our relationships now and not wait for something so drastic? I have worked with adults who have elderly parents where fights over their care and estates has divided the siblings and shattered their shared family lives. Despite what seems like insurmountable obstacles, family tension is one area where we can have some control and often need to find ways to move forward as we get older.
Sometimes family stress involves accepting a new family dynamic. As more people re-marry in later years, adult children find themselves having to accept step-parents and adapt to blended families at an older age. Those transitions can be difficult and hard to talk about. Holidays and family events can become even more complicated and there can be a lot of hurt to get over. Maybe there’s another way of looking at it: How lucky Mom/Dad is to find love at this age! It may take a while to get to this outlook but isn’t it worth trying?
There are costs to not maintaining a relationship with family. For one thing, when we separate ourselves from them we are also denying our children formative relationships with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have had conversations with young adults whose parents are in business and not speaking. These young adults requested an intervention for their elders so they can, once again, have holiday dinners together. A person who had been in business with his uncle decided, after an unpleasant split in the business, that they would suspend all animosity for family occasions so as not to jeopardize the greater family relationships. My friend, who had stopped speaking to her sister after her mother died a few years ago, recently invited her sister to an event and was delighted when it went well. They will never be best friends but their families will be spending the next holiday together. Do not underestimate the value of the occasional phone calls from nieces and nephews and extended family as we age and our circles get smaller.
I sometimes hear siblings say, “I wouldn’t speak to my sister/brother if I didn’t have to.” That may well be true but life’s circumstances sometimes force the need for communication. Caring for elderly parents usually falls to adult siblings. For those who have had an ongoing good relationship, these tense circumstances can be easier to deal with. But for those who do not have a good rapport with siblings, sharing responsibility for the care of a parent becomes more complicated and unpleasant for all involved. As I often tell adults whose parents are in their 80’s and 90’s, it’s not a question of if something happens with elderly parents, it’s a question of when. Isn’t it better to think ahead and be prepared to work together, relieving some of the stress and anxiety that comes with the situation?
No, our siblings may not be the easiest people to get along with, but then again, we are no longer living with them. It’s not about going back in time and reliving the hurts and injuries of the past; it’s about finding a way to move forward. Maybe with a little effort and, if necessary, with a little assistance, we can repair these damaged relations, minimize the stress and hurt, and get what we can and give what we can with a different perspective in our later years.