Involvement with and Role Perception toward an Adult Sibling with and without Mental Retardation

By Rimmerman, Arie; Raif, Ruth | The Journal of Rehabilitation, April-June 2001 | Go to article overview

Involvement with and Role Perception toward an Adult Sibling with and without Mental Retardation


Rimmerman, Arie, Raif, Ruth, The Journal of Rehabilitation


Sibling relationships occupy a unique position within the study of human relationships, and are of potentially longer duration than any other human relationship (Cicirelli, 1982). Sibling relationships, especially in comparison to parent-child relationships, are highly egalitarian and the sibling role remains part of the individual's identity regardless of changes in life events. These unique attributes contribute to the emotional and reciprocal influences that have been described among siblings at all stages in life (Cicirelli, 1982; Geottings, 1986; Seltzer et al., (1991).

Less is known about non-disabled adult siblings' relationship with a brother/sister with mental retardation. With the realization that parental care will ultimately end when the parents die or become incapacitated, it is critical to gain an understanding of the potential role of these siblings. Aging parents often have expectations of their non-disabled children, hoping that they become more involved in caregiving as their siblings with mental retardation grow older. Yet, in most cases, siblings are hardly involved in their parents' planning process (Edmondson, 1985). Parents sometimes transfer their caring roles to their able children gradually, but often they expect the able sibling to cope with the new caregiving role only after their death. At this juncture, siblings are forced to change their affective and instrumental roles towards their brother or sister with mental retardation. Some commit themselves towards the new role but others may be ambivalent or frustrated with the new, added responsibilities (Heller & Factor, 1988; Seltzer, 1993).

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research on how involved non-disabled siblings are in the lives of their brother or sister with mental retardation. Most of the studies involved US data and lacked a comparative or reference group of siblings without disabilities (Gordon, Seltzer &, 1996; Krauss, Seltzer, Gordon & Friedman, 1996).

The purpose of the research is to study how involved Israeli non-disabled siblings are in the lives of their brother or sister with mental retardation, especially after the parents reach old age or are deceased. This major question is examined by comparing the differences in non-disabled siblings' contact and role perception toward a brother/sister with and without mental retardation.

Adult Sibling

In an early study on adult siblings, Cumming and Schnieder (1961) found sibling solidarity to be second in strength only to that between parent and child. Also, Allan (1977) found that sibling interest in the activities of their brothers and sisters continued into old age, even in the absence of regular contact. His study ascertained that sisters shared a stronger affectional tie than did brothers or cross-sex pairs, a finding supported also in an earlier study (Troll, 1971).

Less evident in the literature is the nature or meaning of the sibling tie. Laverty (1962) and Liegh (1982) suggest that positive interest in siblings declines with age. However, Allen (1977) and Cicirelli (1985) contend that older persons desire more kin contact, including contact with their siblings.

A few of the earlier investigations relate sibling ties to the intergenerational and intragenerational context. Hochschild (1973) suggests intergenerational and intragenerational relations to be qualitatively different and to meet different intrapsychic and instrumental needs. For example, Stoller and Earl (1983) report that spouses and children meet more of the instrumental needs of the elderly than do siblings. This, however, does not diminish the importance of the life-validation role that brothers and sisters often play in each other's lives in old age, a role that spouses and children cannot play to the same extent as relationships with them lack the same long history.

Allan (1977) concluded that the key factor for sibling solidarity is "the sibling compatibility and liking for one another" (p. …

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