Elder Mediators Help Siblings Come To Peace for the Sake of Aging Parents

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 9 2012 7:25 AM

The Ties That Blind

It’s tough enough making decisions about elderly parents. What if you don’t like the siblings you have to agree with?

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After lunch, Susanne Terry, Rodar’s mentor and co-mediator in this case, opened the afternoon session by turning to Nancy. “This is really going to sound stupid,” she said, using a mediator’s trick of placing all blame for lack of insight on herself. “But please explain it again to so Neal and I can understand: Why is this reverse mortgage such a big deal?”

Nancy walked them through it, explaining how it all would work in dollars and cents. As she spoke, it became clear how worried she had been, how many nights she had lost sleep over it, how urgent she thought the situation was. “Clyde was jolted,” said Terry later. “He was completely unaware that the finances could have that effect.”

“Oh, my, I hadn’t realized,” Clyde said when Nancy said she was unable to sleep at night. It was the first of a series of aha moments that peppered the rest of the afternoon.

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The emotional exchange went on for another five minutes, each apologizing again and again for not having understood the other’s point of view. Finally Nancy said, “I haven’t hugged you in a long time. Would you like a hug?” Clyde bolted to his feet and opened his arms.

Nancy went around the table to embrace Clyde. Everyone, even the mediators, burst into tears.

“That went well,” Nancy said to her husband when they finally got back to their car. As they were about to pull out, Clyde walked up to Nancy’s side and tapped on the window. He leaned in. “We’ve laid the foundation,” he told her. “Now we can build the house.” Nancy wasn’t sure how much to believe this—Clyde was a smooth talker, and hadn’t he said such things before?—but she reveled in the sentiment nonetheless.

The day after the mediation, Clyde collapsed from a third aneurysm. He was taken by helicopter to Mass General for surgery, and six days later, on June 4, 2008, he died.

“I think that this was a lifetime of animosity that had come to a halt,” Clyde’s daughter Sally told me recently. “I think my dad finally facing it and stepping up and saying, ‘All right, I need help, we’ll work this out,’ and stepping toward his sister for the first time in his life—I think it was a big reason that he was able to let go.”

But there’s a coda to this story, one that shows that transformations aren’t built in a day, and that elder-care issues can get the best of even newly-repaired sibling relationships.

The truth is that most siblings manage on their own to get past childhood feuds. Parents die, friends disappear, spouses leave through either death or divorce, but brothers and sisters endure. As the losses of middle age accumulate, siblings often become more and more important. Sibling ties might fray, but they also have a quality that sociologist Ingrid Connidis calls “a taken-for-grantedness.” Connidis interviewed 60 sibling pairs, ranging in age from 25 to 89, to see how their relationships changed over the life span. Feelings of loyalty and love remained dormant, she wrote, “to be rekindled or ‘mobilized’ only when needed.” Connidis called it “intimacy at a distance.”

Clyde’s sudden death after embracing Nancy helped sear the family’s mediation session in the memories of everyone who witnessed it. What better demonstration of the power of conciliation than a man finally able to rest in peace after he makes amends with the sister he has kept at arm’s length for so long? “It was a good note for him to leave on,” Nancy said. “A person’s got to hope that if we’d had the chance to work on things we’d have become much closer.”

But the story’s coda suggests a different interpretation—not about the blessing of rapprochement with a long-estranged sibling, but about its fragility. What Clyde most wanted was for his mother to live out her life in her own home. But Nancy says the reverse mortgage didn’t come through fast enough, and she ran out of money to pay for round-the-clock home health aides. So three weeks after their mediation—and two weeks after Clyde’s death—Nancy moved their mother into a nursing home, where she lived (unhappily, according to Sally, Clyde’s daughter) for another two years. She died there shortly after her 100th birthday.

Sally says she tries not to judge her aunt Nancy too harshly—her grandmother did take a sharp decline after Clyde’s death and probably did need to be in a nursing home—but she felt stung by how quickly Nancy made the decision without consulting anyone. She prefers to focus on the mediation session, and the hug. “We all celebrate that moment,” Sally says. “That was a golden moment.”

Nancy's quick turnaround shows that rapprochements can be tenuous, especially in feuds that have festered for a lifetime. Many mediation clients need to come back for further sessions, but these two never got a chance, and their still-unresolved issues took on a life of their own. As Max Rivers, a family mediator in Philadelphia, often tells his clients, old wounds between siblings are like beach balls. “You can hold them under water, but they never give up," he said. "As soon as you stop holding them down, they resurface.”

Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine whose books include Pandora’s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution. Follow her on Twitter.

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