Sisters and Brothers

Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

As I sat at a stop light recently, I saw two young people crossing in front of me. The older sister casually and automatically draped her arm around her little brother. She smiled and kept talking with him, not missing a beat. I could see that her arm was there for protection, and that she had unconsciously positioned herself to guide him and be able to help him should the need arise.

A few days later, I watched out the window as my husband and his younger brother, both now with gray hair, walked shoulder to shoulder to look at my brother-in-law’s new truck. My husband still looks out for his younger siblings, and was going to both admire and inspect the new vehicle.

There was a story in the newspaper several years ago about four siblings who ranged in age from their late nineties to over 100. The youngest sister, who was around 97, was complaining that her other sister, at 102, thought she still had the right to boss her around. She sighed with exasperation that the oldest was trying to tell her what kind of walker to purchase. She was told to get the kind with the seat that flips down in case you get tired and need to sit and rest before walking further.

We often think of caregivers as husbands and wives, or mother and fathers with their children. But I think back now of my own relatives who have taken on the role of caregiver for one or more of their siblings. It is a natural evolution. It starts when we’re young and our parents tell the older children to look after their brothers and sisters. It often survives through the fights, teenage angst, and separation that come with education, work, relationships, marriage and children of our own.

We probably still don’t like being bossed around by our brothers and sisters. But there’s something comforting about the shared life experiences, the closer ages, and the fact that they still care enough to tell us what to do. In our later years, we reach a point when our parents and their relatives are gone, and the younger generation is moving on with their own lives. The arm of a brother or a sister to help us cross one of life’s roads when we are vulnerable could be a welcome weight on our shoulders after all.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.