“You should sell her,” Clyde said when his mother came home with a baby sister. That’s the kind of thing jealous big brothers often say when they feel displaced; the comment becomes a cute part of family lore. But Clyde was 13 at the time, too old for cute. His hostility toward his sister Nancy was no passing phase, either. For most of their lives Clyde had nothing but harsh words for Nancy. But when their mother got old and needed their help, the two siblings were forced to interact—and they didn’t really know how.
Eighty percent of American adults have siblings, and while the love between them can be singularly sweet—two-thirds of adults name a brother or sister as one of their best friends—22 percent consider their relationship “apathetic” or downright “hostile.” Most of the time, your less-than-perfect sibling relationships can sputter along unattended, with contact limited to a noncommittal exchange of Christmas cards. But as your parents age and die, you may be forced to make fateful decisions with siblings you spent most of your life barely tolerating. Even among siblings with good relationships, old hurts, old patterns, old disagreements can erupt again, disguised as fights over whether Dad really needs a nursing home or how to divide up the Royal Doulton figurines.
With 85-plus already the fastest-growing cohort in America, and boomers turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day, more and more siblings are struggling with each other over their elderly parents. There are even professional referees for fights like these. An elder mediator gathers squabbling siblings around a table and, for a fee of about $250 to $350 an hour, helps them deal with whatever it is they’re really arguing about. The story of Clyde and Nancy and the elder mediators who helped bring them together demonstrates how complicated these struggles can be—and how, in cases involving elderly parents, sadness touches even the happiest of endings.
In elder mediation sessions, the silly slights of childhood can loom large. “It might be as small as the red wagon you got for Christmas that I really wanted," said Blair Trippe, an elder mediator in Massachusetts and a co-author of Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles and Eldercare Crises. These hurt feelings are difficult to get over, maybe because they seemed so crucial at the time, bubbling out of the complex stew of emotions—love, jealousy, rage, adoration—that siblings stir up in each other. They can also be a bit embarrassing for adults to fess up to. A red wagon? Really?
Clyde and Nancy’s mediation session did not begin well. Nancy, a soft-featured woman with a steel-gray bob, was standing outside with her husband waiting to greet Clyde, but he brushed right past her, plopped himself down at the round conference table in mediator Neil Rodar’s Burlington, Vt. office, and waited for things to begin. He wasn’t at all happy about being there; he had only come because his daughter had insisted.
What brought Clyde and Nancy to mediation was a dispute over whether to take out a reverse mortgage on their 98-year-old mother’s tiny house in New Hampshire. Their feisty mother managed to live alone with a succession of paid assistants. But Nancy said the money was about to run out; a reverse mortgage, she said, was the only way to get the cash they needed to keep their mother out of a nursing home. Nancy had power of attorney, but Clyde had taken the deed she needed for the application and refused to turn it over, thinking her real motivation was to get their mother's house for herself.
Nancy always considered Clyde a larger-than-life figure, the much-older brother who wouldn’t let her play with his Erector set. In the mediation session, she didn’t want to confront Clyde in any way. “I knew he was just going to jump all over me and belittle me, which he was very good at doing,” she told me.
By then Clyde, though still handsome, was a physically diminished man. He was almost 77 years old (Nancy was 64), skinny and stooped, his voice half-gone with the loss of one vocal cord to throat cancer and further damage in surgery after his first aneurysm (he’d had two). He was reduced to talking in a raggedy whisper—but even whispering, Clyde was the sort of man who made his opinions known loud and clear.
The mediation got underway with Clyde and Nancy stating and re-stating their grievances in an endless loop. They were trying to be civil, but it wasn't working. All the “I” statements in the world were no match against some of the hurtful things Clyde had said in the past, like that Nancy had no initiative and would never amount to anything—a blistering comment that rang in her head even as she sat in Neal Rodar’s conference room more than 50 years later.
So many of the stories I’ve heard from adult siblings in conflict might cause an outsider to think, “Grow up, already.” These are men and women in their 50s and 60s bickering over small injustices, and not only the old ones left over from when they were kids: not getting invited to a nephew’s wedding, not getting enough help packing on the day Mom and Dad moved, not getting the retirement ring you wanted that Dad gave to your sister.
Some people enter mediation almost as afraid of succeeding as they are of failing. “If I make up with my sister,” one client said to Trippe, “how are we going to relate? What are we going to fight about if we can’t fight over the house?”