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GOOD HEALTH MAGAZINE : Psychology : BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE SOME TIME? : SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS CAN BE THE MOST IMPORTANT IN LIFE. SUCH TIES BECOME MORE,NOT LESS, IMPORTANT AS WE AGE AND ARE THE ONLY ONES WITH THE POTENTIAL TO LAST FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE.

October 07, 1990|DIANE SWANBROW | Swanbrow is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer who has two sisters.

Although settling scores with sisters and brothers may be important in middle-age, add a few more years and most siblings start to mellow. The death of a parent can bring sisters and brothers closer to each other. "After an elderly parent dies, some families become more distant," says Andrew Scharlach, a University of Southern California researcher who is studying the impact on adults of parents' deaths. "But others become closer. One sister or brother begins to act in loco parentis , becoming the new head of the family or the kin keeper."

According to Purdue University psychologist Victor Cicerelli, the life cycle that begins with two or more siblings being each other's closest companions and best friends often ends the same way. Cicerelli interviewed more than 300 brothers and sisters and found a low level of rivalry among elderly sibs: 10% reported having arguments; 6% reported being bossed or attempts at domination by a sib; 8% reported feelings of competition--and that only rarely--and only a handful reported outbreaks of jealously, hostility, or snobbishness.

Instead of bickering or feuding, Cicerelli found that older sisters and brothers spent a good deal of time reminiscing--a way of bringing back what they had together and of exorcising any remnants of sibling rivalry. "Sisters seem to have the closest relationships," Cicerelli reports. "At least they report lower morale and more depression if they're not getting along with their siblings."

In middle-age, almost 70% of the people Cicerelli interviewed said they felt close or extremely close to a sister or brother. In old age, more than 80% did. Even those who did not seemed to recognize how valuable the relationship is.

As one man told Cicerelli: "Sure, I hate my brothers. But after all, they're family."

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