A few years ago a friend gave me a self-published book by two of her cousins (sisters) to read. It was about the way they co-ordinated care of their ageing parents while living in different parts of the United States. Not surprisingly, as more people live to a ripe old age and as families are increasingly dispersed, the literature on this subject is increasing.

On the New York Times The New Old Age blog Paula Span, herself the author of one of these books, draws attention to the just published, They’re Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. Author Francine Russo obviously thinks there is a largish market out there of baby boomers who a) have siblings, and b) are likely to disagree with each other about how to look after mum and dad.

After interviewing lots of people Ms Russo reckons that siblings will expect each other to behave in these circumstances as they always have: the responsible one to take most of the responsibility, the “successful outsider” to keep his or her distance — “They’ll probably resist your help even as they complain that you’re not helping”, she says. Like the sisters I referred to above, she has checklists and strategies for avoiding such situations.

From my experience I would say it is in everyone’s interest to encourage the whole family to get involved to the extent that they can — not only to relieve the main family caregiver, but because it is a filial duty to help your parents, because they need to know that you love them and because it enriches a person’s character. It can be a remedy against a middle-age syndrome where, once the children are off your hands, life can become very self-focused (along the lines of those retirement village ads featuring 60-somethings sprinting along the beach or planning their next overseas trip).

Clearly, someone living in a different state or a different country is going to be able to do very little in the line of caregiving or emotional support, but they may be able to help financially and/or visit once a year to spend a decent length of time with elderly parents. I have seen this work well between two brothers whose widowed mother lived in a nursing home. In the same place I have seen two sisters, both working fulltime and with their own family responsibilities but living in the same city, taking turns to spend time with their mother every evening at mealtimes. In my own family we have managed the same sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the majority of dependent elderly people in such facilities get very little attention from their children, and this situation is unlikely to improve as the two-child and one-child families age. The time may not be far off when squabbling over the details of how to look after mother will seem like a luxury: if only there was a sister or brother to disagree with!

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet