“Letting go of you was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said 107-year-old Sarah, "Sadie” Delany regarding the death of her beloved sister, Elizabeth “Bessie” at age 104. About two years older than Bessie, Sarah never expected to survive her sister: “It doesn’t seem natural that I outlived you… learning that I am a separate human being… for the first time in my life” (Delany & Hill Hearth, 1997). For more than 100 years, the Delany sisters, who chose careers over marriage, lived together – outliving their parents and siblings. While their lives are truly extraordinary, the deep bonds they shared are representative of those that often occur between siblings as they age, especially sisters.

About 85 percent of people in middle age have a living sibling, compared to 78 percent of adults 60 years and older (Cicirelli, 1995). Even at age 80, however, most people still have at least one sibling alive (Cicirelli, 1995). Siblings share a unique relationship. They are born in the same generation, they share the same family history, and their relationship lasts a lifetime. The collective memories and experiences of siblings become more meaningful over time, providing deep roots to the past and reinforcing personal identity (Gold, 1989). According to eminent gerontologist Robert Butler (1963), reminiscing about the past is an important part of life review, a universal process that provides a way for older adults to make sense out of their life experiences. Butler found that people reminisce more often in later life with siblings than with any other family member. The review process helps to resolve old conflicts, allow seniors to accept life as it is today, and contributes to better adjustment in old age.

Sibling relationships often follow a pattern of being close in youth, growing apart in midlife as families and careers take precedence, and growing closer again in later life (Brubaker, 1984). Often a critical incident, such as the death of a parent or spouse, divorce, or illness, services as the catalyst for renewing contact in the mid- or later in life (Brubaker). Earlier rivalries or conflicts may be put aside in order to rekindle relationships.

Social Support in Sibling Relationships

Those who establish close relationships with siblings in later life tend to experience greater life satisfaction, healthier psychological well-being, higher morale, less depression, and a greater sense of emotional security in old age (Cicirelli, 1995). Most siblings report lose emotional bonds, a tie that does not diminish over distance. Cicirelli (1995) in her study of older adults found that about 26 percent of siblings lived in the same town, and another 56 percent lived within 100 miles of one another. Those who lived close by reported weekly contact, while those that lived farther away still maintained frequent contact by phone, letter, or e-mail. Sister-to-sister sibling relationships showed the greatest amount of contact in later life, followed by sister-brother. Brother-to-brother relationships had the least amount of contact (White & Riedmann, 1992).

Social support between older siblings, particularly those who are married or have children, is most likely to consist of emotional support. While Cicirelli (1995) found that 60 percent of respondents said they would help a sibling if they needed their assistance, only 7 percent had ever turned to a sibling for primary assistance during a crisis. However, knowing that they are there if needed provides most seniors with a sense of security (Bengtson et al., 1990). For siblings without a spouse or children, such as the Delaney sisters, social support becomes more comprehensive and often include instrumental support as well as emotional support (Atchley & Barusch, 2004).

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.