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Since the pandemic began, I’ve been the only one taking care of my mother. How can I get my sister to step up?

  • Author: Wayne and Wanda
  • Updated: September 12, 2020
  • Published September 12, 2020

Dear Wayne and Wanda,

My sister and I are both working adults living in Anchorage. We have one other sibling, a brother, who lives in the Valley. Our mother lives about a mile from me on the south side. My sister lives downtown.

Mom is a widower and lives alone. Since the pandemic, due to health issues that put her at higher risk, she has stayed home. She isn’t in horrible health but she does need help with things regularly. Before COVID, that was stuff like household chores, lawn mowing, fixing stuff, but now helping her also includes bringing her groceries, checking her post office box, maybe walk her dog a few times a week, and honestly, just hanging out with her. Mom has a cellphone that she barely uses and doesn’t know how to video chat.

Here’s my issue: I am the only sibling doing these things for Mom. I spend many, many hours a week either at her house or running errands for her. I am glad to help because she’s my mom and I love her but I am frustrated with my sister for not helping. My sister hasn’t taken COVID that seriously. Sure, she wears a mask when she goes out, but boy does she go out. I feel like every other day there is a new Instagram post of her at yet another restaurant or bar with her huge group of friends.

She says she’s being safe; I say she’s being selfish. If she needs to briefly put her social life on hold so she can ensure she’s healthy and lend a hand with our mom, so be it! She says I’ve got it handled and why don’t I bug our brother to help. Well, he lives an hour away, that’s why.

I’m frustrated and I could use some help. How can I get her to take this seriously?

Wanda says:

Pandemic or not, it’s completely normal for adult siblings to feel the pressure and the strain of inequities when it comes to caring for aging parents. COVID-19 is adding a layer of complexity and emotion to what is already often a very tough issue and a hard lifestyle transition. I’d wager that even without the pandemic in play, you would be carrying the water while your sister was bellied up to the bar at a watering hole.

Your sister needs a hard-core reality check if she’s going to stop checking out and start checking in on your mom, and rather than keep going at her one-on-one, why not up your chances and make this a two-on-one: recruit your Valley brother to your side. If your sister sees your brother stepping up, she’ll feel increased pressure — and perhaps, set aside her own life for a moment — to be there for your mom. Yes, your brother has a longer drive, but hey, what’s two hours roundtrip compared to the hours of mom care you’re logging weekly?

Share the situation with your bro, then set up a family front-yard or park meet-up with your mom. Keep it safe with fresh air, masks, distance and brevity, but make it clear to sis that everyone is coming, everyone includes her, and her attendance is expected. Best-case scenario, this moment of family bonding amid global upheaval will trigger some feels in her that prompt her to make some more family-centric choices.

Worst-case, the whole time she’s restless and reluctant and feeling sad she’s missing happy hour. If the latter occurs, you could totally go schemer and recruit your brother to be ready to talk about how badly he feels that you’re doing all the work and how he’d like to help out more. This plotting might feel a little sneaky, but it also might apply the peer pressure needed to get your sister to start acting like a responsible member of the family.

Wayne says:

Your slacking siblings seriously don’t want to pitch in for, or even check in on, your already fragile mom, even from a socially safe distance, during some pretty damn crazy and lonely times? Brutal. If they don’t have the heart to step up on their own, or step in to support you when you ask for help, I’m wondering why the heck your mom isn’t taking care of you a little by assigning chores and passing out guilt trips to them?

I’m guessing your mom is grateful and appreciative that you, her new favorite daughter, Ms. Reliable, is handing business for her and bending over backwards to do so. She can count on you: you don’t miss a deadline, don’t skip an assignment, and don’t say no. But she shouldn’t expect that level of commitment from you and she shouldn’t put you in the spot to have to “encourage” your bro and sis to do the same. What she should do is demand some level of help — and some level of compassion — from all of her adult children.

Especially when your sister clearly has plenty of energy and free time. She can sacrifice a night or two — or even an hour or two — here and there to help. And your brother does not get a pass. Thousands of people make that drive five days a week for work. He should be able haul it into town once a weekend for a shift of running errands and doing chores for mom. Oh, and maybe, you know, talk with her, see her face for a bit, tell her he loves her.

Whether your sibs end up helping or not, you shouldn’t go down as a mommy martyr. If you are running out of energy, time and/or patience, tell your mom you need a break and take it. Scale back the workload for real, as well as your fuming and frustration about the sibs. Because if you burn out, or worse, get sick due to all of your running around, you’re no good for your mom, yourself, or anyone else.

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