Ohio State University Extension
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Siblings Are Forever
Even though there is not much attention given to sibling relationships in old age, researchers have shown
that having brothers and sisters can significantly benefit us in later life.
Possibly because siblings share memories and a sense of family identity, people
with siblings report higher life satisfaction and lower rates of depression in old
age. In times of illness or crisis, siblings are shown to provide emotional and
psychological support to each other. This exchange of support is common
between siblings who live far away as well as those who live next door to each other.
Why are sibling relationships so important?
- While friendships come and go, sibling relationships are permanent. We cannot choose our siblings as we do
friends; that is what makes this relationship unique.
- The sibling relationship has the
longest duration of any human relationship! Next to our parents, who often
know us from birth to adulthood, our siblings are likely to know us even
longer. Because most siblings are within 10 years of age, we are likely to share
a relationship for more years than any other family relationship.
- Our siblings share with us a
lifetime worth of memories and stories. For example, your sister may be the
only other living person who remembers that vacation to Niagara Falls
when you were children or your brother is the only one who can remember
how your grandpa used to eat your vegetables behind grandmas back.
This shared history is priceless and becomes more valuable as we age.
How do sibling relationships change over the life span?
Not surprisingly, many of us begin our lives having close contact and
a growing emotional bond with our siblings. Except for moments of
sibling rivalry, we often turned to our siblings for entertainment, support, and
advice. As we get older, however, the sibling relationship often changes:
- Once individuals reach adulthood, it
is common for siblings to go their separate ways in order to establish
their identity and independence, pursue employment, and establish a family
of their own.
- During late middle-age siblings often find each other and establish
close ties once again.
- Significant life events (death, divorce, birth of grandchildren, relocation, retirement, illness) can cause
siblings to renew their contact. Earlier rivalries or conflicts are often put aside in
the desire to share this re-discovered relationship.
What can we do to enhance sibling relations?
Because sibling relationships can be so beneficial in later life, it is
important to nourish interactions with siblings in adulthood and among our children.
- Parents need to foster and respect
the sibling relationships among their children.
- Provide siblings with opportunities
to share time and activities, despite differences in age.
- Be sure no favoritism (the
most common cause of bitter sibling rivalry that can last into later life) is
practiced by parents or other extended family.
- Allow siblings to work through
their own disagreements therefore building a relationship with each other that
is separate from their parents.
- When older siblings begin to leave home, encourage them to
maintain contact with their younger siblings and facilitate these interactions with
- Parents need to facilitate and
maintain strong sibling ties with their own sisters and/or brothers in
adulthood. These relationships will serve as models of healthy sibling interaction
for their children.
- Establishing and maintaining good sibling relations in adulthood
often depends on the development of positive relations with sisters and
brothers-in-law. Adult siblings need to make an extra effort to establish a
mutually respectful and congenial relationship with the spouse of their sibling(s).
- Adult siblings must practice mutual support and cooperation during
times of stress or family upheaval. This collaboration will continue into
later life and serve as a source of emotional, psychological, and instrumental
- Research shows that it is often
sisters who maintain contact with siblings and facilitate interaction and
communication. Adult siblings, especially brothers, need to take the responsibility
of maintaining continued contact with each other.
- Important life events are occasions
for siblings to interact. These events serve as opportunities for siblings
to strengthen or even repair sibling ties. Giving special attention to these
events and providing time to share with siblings is important.
Cicirelli, V. G. (1995). Strengthening sibling relationships in the later years.
In Gregory C. Smith (Ed.), Strengthening Aging Families: Diversity in
Practice and Policy. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Cicirelli, V.G. (1994). The Longest Bond: The Sibling Life Cycle.
In Luciano LAbate (Ed.), Handbook of Developmental Family Psychology
and Psychopathology. New York: Wiley.
Author: Christine A. Price, Extension State Specialist, Gerontology, Department
of Human Development and Family Science.
Click here for the PDF version of this fact sheet.
All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension
are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard
to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin,
gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.
Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and
Director, OSU Extension.
TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-1868
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