Dear Family Advisor

How do I stop my mom's sisters from interfering with her care?

Last updated: Apr 20, 2011

Portrait of older people smiling happily

I'm an only child; it's always just been Mom and me. She's in her 80s now and moved to be near me so I can help her with errands, laundry, and shopping. She has health problems, and I have on-and-off mental health problems, but I believe we can manage her care, especially if we bring in a home health worker for an hour or so per day.

I thought being her only child would protect me from family battles over my mom, but boy, was I wrong. She has two sisters who try to take control of everything, as well as another sister and a brother who are on "my" side. I have power of attorney, and the trusted uncle and his wife are second in line. But those two aunts have been trying for years to sell Mom's house and put her in a home. One of them tried to take over her finances and find a nursing home for her while she was in the hospital recently -- without talking to her or me about it. (They tried to do the same thing to their own mother years ago.)

Legally, I believe my mom and I are protected, given the power of attorney arrangements. But how do I keep my bossiest aunt from making some secret plan to spirit Mom away to an unknown home in the middle of the night? A restraining order is too severe. This aunt and her husband have been good to me, and I don't want to lose them from my life. We just disagree on this issue, and instead of discussing it, they take actions behind my back and then lie to my face. My uncle and his wife confirm that it's happening -- this isn't just me being paranoid.

How do I stop this, yet preserve the relationship?

Don't worry about preserving your relationship with your aunts; think about caring for your mom -- and for yourself. There are too many people in your life for you to worry about trying to please them all. Be clear that you have POA and you're in charge of your mother's care. Period. You don't have to be ugly about this, but it sounds like you need to be firm.

Some families like to get into one another's business, not because they're mean-spirited as much as just meddlesome. While I'm glad to hear that you don't want to extricate your aunts from your life, I do want you to see that there are too many cooks in this kitchen, and they're interfering with your plans. Probably you'll have to stand your ground again and again before they get the message. To them, you're still a kid (I don't care if you're in your 50s), because they knew you as a child and they feel they still know best. They may even think that since you struggle with mental health issues, you're less than capable of handling this caregiving challenge -- but in truth, many people manage all kinds of health challenges.

It's good that you have an uncle and aunt you can rely on, but don't rely on them too much. Standing up to your family can teach you about yourself and give you the opportunity to find out just how strong you are. Caregiving could bring out the best in you.

And while I mean every word of that, you need to know that you're vulnerable, too. I don't have to tell you that caregiving can require long hours and tough decisions, and it can strain your health and emotions. You have to stay well, take your meds, get sleep, stay on top of things. Your mom needs you, and you need yourself.

Get involved in your local caregiving community so you know what resources are out there, and so that not all of your support and advice comes from relatives. Your mom also needs daily interaction with other people -- people her age, and people who don't want to manipulate her. She needs someone other than you to smile when they see her. Look into adult daycare; many communities offer van or shuttle services to such sites, and it would be a great way for your mom to get out of the house for a few hours a week.

You also need a Plan B -- more than one, actually. You need backup, someone who can jump in and help out if you're having a difficult day. Your health may change -- I hope it only gets better -- or your mom's health may change -- that's almost inevitable. So carefully investigate various care possibilities and figure out what's nearby. You can be your mom's daughter and advocate even if you're not in charge of her care 24/7. It's OK to seek out a small-group home, assisted living, or more home care, for the future if not for right now. Don't close your mind to any opportunity.

You've got a big family, and they're in your life for a reason. They're not there to bully you or take over. Stand up for yourself and form a bond with your mom that's unbreakable. Don't trade her life for yours, but stand firm in love -- and remind your aunts that their role is to love their sister and to support her best care.