Let’s Talk Turkey

Here we are a week before Thanksgiving. Not only are we seeped in pumpkin everything, but thanks to retail it feels like the Christmas season is in full swing. My middle-school aged daughter comments on the abundance of television ads with “personified” toys coming to life after store hours. Personally, I get a kick out of the International Delight creamer commercial where the pitchman with deadpan delivery says, “Coffee is bitter. Bitter like old family arguments that resurface during the holidays.” Ha!

No longer bombarded with political campaign messages, my family is once again preoccupied with favorite programming on the Food Network and HGTV. On prime time, we’re nearing the finals on Dancing with the Stars and The Voice is in live playoffs.

Thanks to the barrage of highly produced pop talent shows on TV these days, it seems we’re all a little wiser. As a nation we’ve upped our judging skills so that now we’re all in tune to when someone sounds “a little pitchy.” That is, a little off, and we take those skills everywhere with us—online, to school, to work, family functions, you name it. Not the musicality part, the judging. The rifts and divide we’re striving to heal in the aftermath of the presidential campaigns is evidence as well. Whether through overt admission or not (but mostly not), we feel justified in the name of having, well, a voice.

The same is true with discourse around our caregiving responsibilities among siblings and extended family. It’s an understatement to say family caregiving, with the added hustle and bustle of the holidays, can bring out the best and worst in all of us.

Either through little quips or long winded stories, the family caregivers who I meet inevitably provide glimpses into their family dynamics. Not to name drop, but there’s usually a “self-centered” or “selfish one.” Furthermore, “they’ve always been that way!”

Like it or not, siblings tend to see each other with eyes that keep them cast in roles of their childhood self. The ‘avoider’ or ‘peacekeeper’ may have very well matured into established, well respected professionals, only to find over, say, Thanksgiving dinner, that they are perpetually viewed as their earliest label.  There’s typically one sibling, (could be either “the free-spirit” or “the responsible one”) who rises to the occasion, as the primary caregiver or is nominated regardless of buy-in, perhaps because they have a flexible work schedule, or live the closest. Sound familiar?

Label or not, I’ve found there’s another layer of familiar family gripe which can exacerbate sibling strife. It has to do with the sense of responsibility for the caree, (in this example, an elderly parent) with sentiments typically falling into two camps— 1) duty bound or 2) heart strings. (Granted, every family is truly unique, so pardon the generalization. The roped and tied metaphor is an attempt to level the playing field.)

I don’t mean responsibilities in terms of tasks, as in, “I’ll assist with finances, if you help with shopping and transportation to medical appointments.” It’s great if there are clearly established roles, but I’m referencing the emotional realm as in feeling responsible for Mom or Dad.

The duty bound approach is to do their fair-share, out of obligation and parental respect. There’s often clear boundaries and they may find it easier to arrive at decisions, (i.e. admittance to a nursing home) using logic and safety considerations. Whereas heart-strings, find themselves lost in the emotional turmoil of the decisions at hand, internalizing the experience on a different level.

That’s not to say one camp has monopoly on having heart or that one approach is right, wrong or better off, it’s simply a lens that I use to get my bearings. Sometimes it’s one person with all of the above! Whatever the case, I remind the importance of staying well rested and take a pulse on whether the individual considers caregiving as something that we get to do versus have to do.

Every family has (or will have) their caregiving story to tell. In the meantime, a sense of humor, patience, and perspective will help. As well as the knowledge that rare is the family who sails through the family caregiving years without issue. Even in cases when parents have planned in advance.

Unfortunately, the pressures of family caregiving can push sibling relationships out on the furthest limb and strain to the breaking point. In the case of my siblings and I, there are insights I’d rather not know and battle scars that took a long time to heal. I suppose their label for me during the rough days was Henny Penny. Simultaneously exhausted and anxiety ridden, I swung the pendulum of either over-communicating or shutting down.

A wonderful observation that came clear in the midst of our collective caregiving was that no matter the argument or petty issue going on behind the scene, when it came to our elderly Father- to regular visits, shared errands and time spent bedside, we were all there. The wisdom in the adage, “actions speak louder than words” was true.

Trust, it was not always apple pie and ice cream! We each had our turn complaining, finger wagging and bemoaning, but for the most part we were present and accounted. Quite possibly, we wore our judging-selves out and it was easiest to simply show up. Maybe Pollyanna, but I feel our trial was part of a greater testing and I choose to believe we passed.

So, go ahead and talk turkey this Thanksgiving. Take note of each other’s opinion but don’t allow differences and disagreements to stop you from coming together on your caree’s behalf. Keep in mind we are all imperfect, using coping mechanisms that might just stem back to childhood ways. Our sibling relationships are perhaps the most difficult of all and test our ability to love and accept.

This holiday season, as the coffee pitchman happily pours in creamer to diffuse, I hope all family caregivers find a way to put judging and bitterness aside.

A Happy Thanksgiving to you and all of our imperfect families…let’s embrace and cherish them all.


Sibling relationships – and 80 percent of Americans have at least one – outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust. – E. Goode, writer

Sarabeth Persiani

Sarahbeth Persiani is the author of Run, Walk, Crawl- A Caregiver Caught Between Generations. For five years, Sarahbeth was the primary caregiver for her Father, who had dementia, while working full-time and taking care of her own family. As the founder of We Are Sharing the Sun, her focus these days is to help companies create a supportive culture for family caregivers and provide education, support and encouragement for working professionals who are themselves in the sandwich squeeze.