Dear Family Advisor

My know-it-all sister will be here for ten days at Christmas, and I can already feel my stress level rising.

Last updated:

November 18, 2008

My mom lives with my family and me. She's 82 years old and uses a walker. She also has lung problems and needs breathing treatments. My sister only visits twice a year, but you'd think she deserved a Congressional Medal for it! She waltzes in with her husband and their little dog (without even asking if it's OK to bring the pet) and takes over as Mom's caregiver.

She cooks in my kitchen and tells me what to do about Mom's meds and physical therapy, like I don't know. She also brags that she's Mom's favorite, but says Mom can't stay with her because she has to work full-time. Like I don't have a job? I work part-time and we're struggling financially, but I feel like I have to find a way to make sure Mom is cared for.

Mom plays right into it and starts buddying around with my sister because she enjoys all the attention, but I have to do the day-to-day care and be the bad guy when it comes to baths and treatments and regimens. I get so frazzled that I wind up hating Christmas. I don't want to cause a scene, but how can I enjoy the holidays and not let my sister get to me?

You don't need to cause a scene, but you are going to need to assert yourself more with your sister for your own sake -- whether or not it changes her behavior. And because it very well might not, you also need to take some steps so that she doesn't get to you. Rest assured, however, that you can do this, and there's no better time than now.

First, try to pull back from your sibling identity and get some perspective on your sister. Is she older than you? Does this dynamic permeate other areas of your relationship?

It appears that she needs to exert her authority over you in order to feel good about herself. But she's not coming from a place of real power. She feels threatened in some way, even if she doesn't know it, and that's why she needs to act like the big shot. Maybe she's afraid your mom loves you more than her, or that she's not needed.

Does she really want to be your mom's full-time caregiver? I don't think so. Her actions say otherwise. She just doesn't want you to get the glory, the intimacy, or the credit for being the "good daughter." She needs to prove herself to your mom, to you, and even to herself.

But you're bigger than that. Your mom is living with you because you love her and want to know she's cared for properly. You have the power of real experience. Understanding this won't change your sister, but it can change your sense of her and how much power you give her.

Your sister is a guest in your home, and she should remember that and respect it. Speak to her in advance about whatever's bugging you the most. Are there one or two particular things she could do to make your holidays significantly less stressful? Maybe it's not bringing her dog, or not correcting you about your mother's care, or not taking over in the kitchen.

Call or e-mail her now, or drop her a card stating firmly a couple of the most important things that you'd like to change. For example, you might tell her that you find it too chaotic with different cooks in the kitchen. You could say, "This is my home and my kitchen. I appreciate your wanting to help, but I'll let you know what I need."

Another option would be to assign her, ahead of time, certain evenings to make dinner. Then you can stay out of the kitchen -- and away from her comments -- and catch up on other chores, or even go out for coffee and take the evening off!

Once she has arrived, I'd strongly suggest also asking her to do one caregiving task each day. It could be helping your mom bathe or dealing with treatments or regimens. In fact, don't let her get away with just taking your mom out or doing one of the more "fun" caregiving chores. Tell her, "I appreciate your being here and what I really could use help with is…." It will remind her and your mother how much you do every day and will give you a much-deserved break.

You'll probably need to remind your sister of the new ground rules before she comes or as soon as she arrives. And before she's in the house, I'd suggest that you have a heart-to-heart with your mother about how you feel she treats you and your sister. Fair or not, she may be overly excited to see your sister because she's there so seldom -- or you may feel that she has always favored your sister -- and she may not realize how painful you find her reaction.

Tell her that this behavior hurts you -- that you care for her every day, and that should be honored. It may upset her to hear this, but it will also give her something to think about at a time when many older people are trying to make peace with their past. You don't need to make it a confrontation -- you can reassure her of your love and devotion, but ask her to tone it down a bit and show both her daughters that she loves them.

An important thing to keep in mind is that you don't need to give your sister the best of your holidays. So save something just for you, or for you and your mom. What's really precious to you? A candlelit dinner with Christmas carols playing? Going to midnight mass? Decorating homemade cookies with your kids and grandkids?

Whatever means Christmas to you, save it and make it a private moment before your sister arrives or when she's not around. This is your home and your holiday -- preserve the most profound moments and enjoy them the way you want to. Just thinking about this should help you melt the stress away.

Finally, I suggest that you sit down with a pen and a pack of note cards. List all you do as a daughter -- every little duty and thoughtful gesture -- on a separate card. When I ask caregivers to do this, they tend to list errands, such as doctor visits, but the list should also include things like comforting a loved one who is sick or scared.

Now, look at all you do for your mom. Carry some of the cards in your pocket while your sister's there to remind yourself that she can't threaten you. You've already established yourself with your mom, and this isn't a contest. Your sister can brag all day, and a few people might buy it, but you know the truth.

All this is going to take some courage, but don't shrink into a smaller role. You'll let yourself down if you do. Standing up for ourselves is a big life lesson. Keep those cards in your pocket, and when you're feeling a bit intimidated, pull one out to remind yourself of what a loving daughter and good caregiver you are.

I know a therapist who reassures her clients when they're in new and scary emotional territory by saying, "It's a new day!" In some ways, this is the ironic gift of caregiving -- it's a new day and a new chance to learn how to really love, especially how to love ourselves.