Dear Family Advisor

"I do all the caregiving for my parents, while my deadbeat sister takes all their money."

Please help! I am the sole caregiver to my dad, 87, and mom, 84. My sister has depleted their money to almost nothing. My dad insists on paying her rent, car payments, utilities, pet expenses, and everything else. It's almost criminal, but I cannot stop it. My father runs the house and will not change; my mother has no say.

I'm afraid that he might be willing to put himself and my mother on the street to keep my sister off of it. She doesn't work and can't find a job. (Why should she, since Dad pays for everything?) I provide all the care; she gets all the money. I'm at liberty to care for them and don't mind doing it. But I do worry about them.

I know this is frustrating and hurtful. Start by trying to understand your parents' motivations. Ask yourself, why is your dad so insistent on supporting your sister? Parents often feel responsible for how our children turn out. We blame ourselves in one way or another -- we weren't there when they needed us, we should have been firmer or listened more "¦ when in reality each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own life. Your parents may also "need to be needed." Your sister's dramatic life gives them something to focus on; they may not even realize that the relationship is dysfunctional.

It can help to also ponder what motivates your sister's behavior. Even if she's using your parents, she may be doing it out of her own hurt or possibly addiction. Let's face it -- you wouldn't want her life.

Love your parents just as they are, and love your sister (even if it's from a distance) and try to see the good in her. Deal with her kindly and firmly, but try not to get drawn into the turmoil.

You'll have to work hard at times to stay strong and not let your emotions get away from you. Maybe you can find a way to lovingly share your feelings about the situation with your dad -- he might have a "light bulb" moment and realize that he didn't necessarily cause your sister's problems and he can't fix them through financial handouts. At the same time, realize that things may never change. The only things we can truly change are our own lives and attitudes.

On a practical level, you must begin to gather information on all the resources available to your mom and dad. Unless they're declared incompetent, which would require legal proceedings, your parents have the right to do what they like with their money, even if they may soon have none left. Make calls, scour the Internet and unearth every possible resource: care choices, low-cost options, no- cost options, senior assistance on everything from adult diapers to vitamins to aid that allows them to stay in their home. Sharing these may help give them a sense of what they face down the road, and will be resources you may need for them.

Encourage your dad to allocate a portion of his money toward his and your mom's care. One way to frame it: Urge him to ensure at minimum that his wife will be cared for in years to come. Another angle is to emphasize how much you want to continue to care for them and, to that end, how important it is to be ready for anything. Suggest adding your name to their accounts and on their house deed. Don't even bring up your sister. Focus on them. Reassure them that you can do nothing without their approval but you want to be in the best position to help in a crisis.

Not least, keep your own life and health your priority. Don't allow your sister and parents to drain too much energy. Remind yourself that you can only do so much to help your parents, especially if they're making it nearly impossible to reason with them. Do what you reasonably can, and try to let the rest go.