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As Parents Age
A Psychological and Practical Guide
by Joseph A. Ilardo, PhD, LCSW

From Chapter 3: The Impact on the Family

In addition to the reactions of each individual within the family, aging evokes collective, familial responses. In this chapter, you will learn what happens within the family as a whole as parents age.
In Part One, you will learn how to look at the family as a system—a unit constantly striving to maintain a balance among its members in order to ensure its survival and to do its work, much as the human body automatically maintains a certain temperature in order to ensure good health. You will read about the typical systemic family responses to a parent's aging, both healthy and unhealthy. Each of these efforts to maintain balance is played out in a predictable manner, and there are steps you can take to change your family's responses when they are dysfunctional.
Just as individuals pass through phases as they mature, so do families. Part Two traces the stages in the family life cycle, explaining that transitions from one stage to the next are always difficult. The failing health of parents, presaging their ultimate death, signals a new phase in the family's life cycle. Under this stress, symptoms (for example, arguments among siblings) may develop in the family. The emergence of symptoms of any sort is a clear indication that the family is stuck in its attempts to negotiate its way through this difficult stage in the family life cycle. Finally, you will learn the factors that affect the quality of the solutions arrived at by a family in the face of parents' aging and death.
In the event that your family is struggling, specific suggestions are provided in Part Three that stress the importance of recognizing symptoms for what they are. For instance, rather than seeing a caregiver's overinvolvement as an indication that he or she is "neurotic," or another person's lack of involvement as an indication that he or she is "uncaring," family members should view such behaviors as symptoms of a family problem. Part Three offers specific suggestions for talking about a problem and explains methods you can follow to solve the problem logically and systematically.

The stress occasioned by the aging of a parent triggers an automatic survival response in the family. Members engage in many balance-maintaining strategies. One of these may be to reinforce old patterns. For example, a responsible adult child, thought of as the most "together" family member, may be looked at by his or her siblings as the only child capable of handling the crisis. Such a response is not entirely healthy. Often, the challenge of being on the threshold of a new stage in the family life cycle may require that old balance-maintaining strategies be replaced by new strategies that are more appropriate. In other words, the roles people play and any long-standing dominance-submission patterns may need to be abandoned.

Despite the difficulties, the family must resolve the crisis posed by a parent's aging. If the parent had more than one child, then many families are affected and are drawn into the negotiations that must occur. Most families manage the negotiations and resolve the crisis, although the quality of the solutions arrived at varies widely. Later, I will discuss solutions in more depth, and the variables that affect their quality, but consider some of the possibilities:
Siblings who get along with each other may or may not continue to get along under the stress of a parent's declining health. As parents age, adult children necessarily become involved with their siblings. If the family is not close, they need to become reinvolved, if only for a limited time.
Siblings who are estranged may continue to be estranged. Their relationship may worsen under the stress. It may also improve, although this is not typical.
Siblings who have simply drifted apart from one another may rediscover each other. This can have positive or negative consequences.
Siblings may have spouses. The spouses may or may not get along with each other.
As these possibilities suggest, involvement among siblings adds many layers of complexity to an already stressful and complex situation.
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