HomeHealthTips | Carolyn Hax: Local sister keeps deflecting requests to do...

Tips | Carolyn Hax: Local sister keeps deflecting requests to do more for elderly mother

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Caroline: As the long-distance daughter of an elderly widowed mother with health needs, I have to navigate a complicated relationship with my sister who lives locally. Sister beat breast cancer and looks at all of our mother’s health issues through the lens of, “This is nothing compared to what I went through.” Additionally, this sister is very busy with children with special needs. So the slightest suggestion I make to her to help our mother is met with a combination of spite and righteous indignation, because how dare I when I live far away and her plate is overflowing?

Our mother is afraid to burden my sister with anything, but she blames me for having to go to medical procedures alone. I understand this is a sandwich generation problem, but it’s also a sibling problem that I can’t address.

— Powerless long-distance daughter

Long Distance Helpless Daughter: “Powerless”? No. You can address it: don’t make even the “slightest suggestion” that “she help our mother.” Ever.

When a cancer survivor with special needs children at home is the only one living near a sick, elderly, widowed mother, nobody intervenes to tell him that he needs to do more. Especially not the person who lives outside the reach of the most grueling job.

If you have the means, offer money for your mother’s care: for a home health aide, a visiting nurse, a housekeeper, a meal delivery service. Or perform tasks you can do remotely, like ordering food for delivery or managing insurance and prescriptions. Even a nominal contribution is a show of good faith, much more so than resigning yourself to helplessness beyond telling your brother what to do.

Your mom, by the way, is the one stirring this pot and it’s totally inappropriate. Your sister is. No. One option. Exactly like you is not an option. Treating your geographic obstacle as, “Oops, gee, I can’t,” and then treating your sister’s saturation obstacle as, “Oh, what’s one more little thing?” This is why families implode over caring for the elderly.

Treat both obstacles equally. And she responds to Mom’s complaints appropriately and clearly: that her daughters take her to appointments. No. One option. Then say that you and she (mom) need to come up with a Plan B. Is it time for a home aide, a medical companion, or an informal network of friends? If she resists, gently/firmly/non-nonsensely remind her that the alternative is not the sister; the alternative is the status quo, where she handles these things herself. Is she okay with that then? If not, return to the options carousel. Not liking options should not be confused with having different ones.

Tell Us: What’s your favorite Carolyn Hax column on becoming an adult?

· My siblings have Dad conference call us to his medical appointments, preferably by video. At least we can listen to the doctors and say things like, “Hey, Dad, remember last week you told us X?”

· I totally agree that it’s a terrible idea to make helpful suggestions to add to sister’s list. One thing you can do from afar is contact your local council on aging and find out what services might be available to Mom. Then, with mom’s buy-in, line them up and be the primary contact.

· You can face it. You just don’t want to. There are many things you can do that don’t involve your sister. For some reason, you and your mom want to leave these responsibilities to your sister.

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