Dear Family Advisor

Should I be the bearer of Mom's bad news?

Last updated: Dec 01, 2010

My mom splits her time between my sister and me. (Sis lives in Florida; I live in Maine). It's worked out great for the last five years, but Mom's turning 84 this year and has really slowed down since her recent knee surgery. My sister is insisting she spend the holidays and winter season with her this year, but Mom says she doesn't have the energy or interest in going back and forth between us this year. I can tell she's ready to stay put here with me.

My mom wants me to talk to my sister about it. I'd intervene on her behalf, but I don't want to hurt my sister's feelings. How do I help soften the news? Or should I stay out of it?

Ideally, encourage your mom to speak directly to your sister -- her daughter-- so you're not viewed as the bad guy. As family, we often step in, or are asked to step in, only to find that we're doing someone else's emotional dirty work.

Your mom's probably "old school," meaning she's of a social type or generation that avoids direct confrontation. She may also be employing those ol' passive-aggressive tactics many of us women know all too well. As long as your mom is of sound mind, it's best to honor her choices as much as you can. But if she doesn't want to travel over the holidays, it's her conversation to have.

Even though your sister might try to talk your mom into coming for the winter as she's done in the past, she needs to say "no" firmly, if that's how she feels, and feel how freeing it is to speak up and say what she really wants.

Help your mom by practicing. Pretend you're your sister while Mom delivers the news. This sort of role-play will raise your mom's confidence and help her organize her thoughts. I'm sure she doesn't want to hurt your sister's feelings and that her reasons (her health and the effort involved) are legitimate. But better they start talking now so that later decisions are easier to discuss.

Afterward, you may be able to explain to your sister what's been going on with your mom's health in more detail, and the two of you can brainstorm how to handle these changes and the ones that may be coming around the corner.

It's easy to think that once you've made some tough choices (like the alternating visits you've arranged so far) that you're set for a while. But caregiving doesn't always work that way. Your mom's condition may stabilize or plummet. You and your sister need to have multiple game plans, and the three of you need to learn how to communicate what each of you wants and needs.

Encourage your mom's input. You may disagree with her ideas, or your sister's. Differences of opinion are normal. Perhaps you could suggest longer stays at each house. Or, if your mom prefers the doctors and medical care at one location, she may need to stay there permanently, with the other sister finding other ways to pitch in and contribute.

However this situation is handled, work to create an atmosphere of the "Three Musketeers" -- some catchy image or phrase that reminds you all that you're on the same caregiving team. Laugh with each other, create new memories, be determined to work through the challenges that come, and say how much you mean to each other, every day.