07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

For Mother's Day, Send Your Mom a Dozen Roses -- and Your Caregiver Sister Two Dozen!

That last Mother's Day in the nursing home, my sister was barely speaking to me. I was used to her anger; so I missed her rising desperation as she helped our frail dad get through that terrible last year of my mother's life. I wish now, that instead of just feeling guilty, I 'd used this day in an unorthodox way -- to thank the sibling who was helping care for my mother. I missed that chance, but you don't have to.

Currently, 43 million people are caring for an aging parent or relative. Ninety-one percent of them say this responsibility is not shared equally, and 51 percent say they do it alone. Demographics tell us that 85 percent have siblings. Yet every day professionals who work with aging families hear the poignant cries of caregivers who feel abandoned by their siblings, desperately in need of a little understanding of what they're going through, and some plain old appreciation. Yet many of their siblings are blind to what seems to others blindingly obvious.

Why? For one thing, the need for long-term family caregiving is new and we have no model for how to do it--or how to understand it as a famly passage. Because of the unprecedented longevity of our parents, we siblings are engaging in the longest family reunion in history. Just as in those annual "home for the holidays" movies, old family roles kick in automatically, and every one becomes who they were when they were ten. But this is no weekend reunion, and it's no comedy either. Those roles that worked when we we kids -- maybe Dad as decision-maker, older sister as responsible one, etc -- don't work amymore, especially when we're in crisis. Some people are missing, and everyone is changed. Yet adaptation comes hard, and many siblings are stumbling and uncertain.

Here's the most common family scenario when a parent, typically a widowed mother, requires help, a little or a lot. One sibling takes on the major role, which expands over time, often becoming overwhelming. In far too many families, sisters and brothers remain not only uninvolved but unsupportive.

This newness of this family passage is further compounded by the unique dynamics of each family, with many common patterns. On the caregivers' side, these include difficulty saying what they need and resentment that pushes their siblings away. On the siblings' side, they include: a genuine lack of understanding of what their sister or brother is going through, and guilt that makes them withdraw, attack, or minimize the caregiver's experience. Old rivalries can also play in big-time on both sides.

Nobody knows better than I that in deeply-conflicted families, a simple thank-you, even when possible, just won't do it. But this is what I've witnessed in many families. The proverbial light goes on in people when they hear that they can really contribute by calling and saying: How are you doing?, Is there anything I can do?' and 'Thank you!" I have also heard a note of joy accompany this epiphany as their guilt lifts -- or, at least, diminishes.

So, I say, for Mother's Day, send your mom a dozen roses -- and two dozen to the sibling who cares for her.