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Elder Maze: Birth order offers glimpse into family dynamics

Paul Graves Correspondent

‘Fred” is a regular reader of this column. Recently he told me of his mother-in-law, who lives in Texas. Fred’s wife is one of three siblings, none of whom lives in the city where Mom lives. According to Fred, she is “either moving rapidly into dementia or has some medical problem that mimics dementia.”

This suggests that in the near future, Mom will likely need more care than she currently requires. Her children need to develop a plan that provides their mother with care and security. They also need to decide how they will work with each other during this time.

For their communication and respective roles to be effective, one of the many factors they might be wise to be consider is the order in which they were born into their family. Birth order is important? Yes, it certainly can be.

While not a precise scientific discipline, “birth order” studies have identified consistent patterns of behavior in children and adults that appear connected to the order in which they born into their nuclear families.

I began to wonder how these patterns impact adult children and aging parents as they go through the elder maze.

So I called my good friend Marty Richards, a nationally known geriatric social worker. Her take on birth order? She’s not seen any research being done specifically on birth order and elder care. But she is strongly convinced that birth order does impact how adult children communicate and work with each other.

It also makes sense to me that we consider the birth order of our parents in their nuclear families. That order might help describe why Mom and Dad respond to issues – or their children – as they do.

So what personality traits do we find as we consider birth order? In 1984, Dr. Kevin Leman wrote “The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are.” I found it in the library. His description of identifiable traits is also found in more current birth order writings I’ve found on the internet.

Which of these lists seem to fit you most accurately?

“Perfectionistic, reliable, conscientious, list maker, well organized, critical, serious, scholarly.

“Mediator, fewest pictures in the family photo album, avoids conflict, independent, extreme loyalty to the peer group, many friends, and a maverick.

“Manipulative, charming, blames others, shows off, people person, good salesperson, precocious, engaging.

Generally, the first list describes a “first born” or an only child. The second includes the “middle” child, and the third is about the “baby” of the family.

Birth order is not merely a parlor game to play, nor is it merely guesswork concocted by a group of child/family psychologists.

Birth order allows us to look more closely at our family dynamics and get some sense about why we respond – or react – to our parents or siblings as we do.

Like my friend Marty said, the order in which we are born into our nuclear families can have a strong impact on how we communicate with other family members.

It can also lock us into playing certain family roles.

But if those roles and patterns aren’t healthy for your parents or your adult children, there is very good news: you don’t have to be locked into those past family roles, or strait-jacketed by your current communication patterns

Do you have strong interest in improving your communication with a sibling, your parent(s), or your adult children?

It could be helpful to read up some on birth order studies. They are easily found in public libraries and the Internet.

If you know more about birth order, you might get a positive boost to exploring new, healthy ways to walk with your children or parents through the elder maze.

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