Discovering that you and your siblings have very different perspectives about your parents’ situation may be one of the most surprising—and challenging—aspects of providing support or care for them as they age. In my experience, it is quite rare for all family members to see things in the same way, and this can often lead to strained relationships among siblings. In addition, older adults may feel pulled between the conflicting viewpoints of their adult children and become uncomfortable making decisions about their future until there is agreement. Thus, for the good of the whole family, it is important for us to explore how we can get on the same page with our siblings and work together to support or care for our aging parents.
I suggest to sibling groups that they approach their parents’ situation from the perspective of “interests” instead of “positions”. These terms come from the book, Getting to Yes, by Fisher and Ury. “Positions” are the viewpoints we hold about what is best or right. For example, one sibling may believe that they should talk to their parents about considering a move into a retirement residence so that they have more opportunities for socialization, more support available, and an overall better quality of life. Another sibling may not want their parents to leave their current home because they think that it is the only place they can be happy. When people hold fast to their positions, it is very difficult to find a harmonious solution, and the conflict often escalates over time.
Switching the focus to what Fisher and Ury call “interests” can completely shift a conversation and allow mutually-agreeable solutions to emerge. Interests are the reasons that people hold on to their positions. Siblings can better understand each other’s interests by asking a simple question such as, “Tell me why mom and dad staying in their current home (or moving into a retirement residence) is important to you?”
Many people don’t step back to understand why they feel so strongly about the positions they hold. I found this to be true for a family of three siblings I recently worked with. Two of the brothers felt their mom and dad should seriously consider a move into a retirement residence because they knew they weren’t safe in their current home. The third brother felt just as strongly they should stay in their own home. This caused a great deal of conflict among the siblings, with accusations flying in all directions. In addition, the parents felt torn about considering options for their future because of the conflict among their sons.
When I spoke with the siblings individually, I found the son who didn’t want his parents to move did understand they weren’t safe in their current home; however, he thought if his father moved he would miss his garden so much that he wouldn’t have a good quality of life in a retirement residence. For him, this belief about his father’s quality of life outweighed his safety concerns.
Once the brothers understood the interests that were behind their positions, they could get creative about solutions. Finding creative solutions happens at the interest level, not at the position level. At the position level, people dig in their heels to defend why they are right. At the interest level, people can explore solutions that satisfy most or all of everyone’s interests.
The brothers brainstormed ways their father may still be able to garden if the parents’ decided to move into a retirement residence. As they explored this issue, they realized their father wasn’t even able to care for his current garden any more, as it was too big. They spoke with staff at a retirement residence they were interested in, who all agreed to accommodate their father with a suite that had space for a couple of flower window boxes. When they discussed this possibility with their parents, they found they were relieved to let go of the responsibility of their large house and garden, and were thrilled with the idea they could still have some flower boxes. They were also very happy that the conflict among their sons had ended.
Because the siblings moved their conversations from their deeply-held positions to the interests behind them, they had better relationships with each other and helped their parents achieve both safety and quality of life.
You have the power to help your family get on the same page in supporting your aging parents. Shift the conversation from positions to interest, and watch the creative solutions emerge!
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.