How do I resolve a family conflict so I can visit my mother?

Concerned asked...

My older sister and her husband moved in with my mom about seven years ago. Up until three years ago, we visited regularly, and asked if we could help with my mom's care (the response has always been "no"). Then Mom got sick three years ago, and everything changed. Fast forward to today: my sister and her husband require us to call before visiting, but they do not answer the phone. If they go out they take the phone off the hook. This sister quit speaking to my brother for whatever reason. She doesn't speak to my oldest sister, either; when they ask why, she simply tells them that they should know why. I haven't spoken to her since October, although I'm not exactly sure why she quit speaking to me. She refuses to even be in the same room when we visit. The situation has now gotten to the point that they do not answer my mom's phone when I call to talk to her. I stopped by this past weekend since she didn't answer the phone, and both of them scattered out of the room as fast as they could. I know my brother-in-law listens in when my mom gets phone calls, so she has no privacy. My question is: what can I do to see my mother? It is her house and they have the power of attorney and the medical power, so we are not notified when she goes to the hospital or falls. She is 93 years old and blind, she can hear okay most of the time, but it is better when she speaks on the phone.

Expert Answer

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

If I understand you correctly, there are a total of four siblings. Your second oldest sister and her husband live with your mother and your sister is now estranged from you, your brother, and your oldest sister.

This sounds like an awful situation for you. Your mother is fortunate that you are concerned for her best interest and that you want to be able to spend more time with her.

Have you explicitly communicated to your sister that you want more time with your mother and that the current arrangement is not working? Have you and your sister and brother put your heads together to try and make sense of the situation? Sometimes, when directly and respectfully confronted, others will surprise you with their reasonable responses.

I always like to start off by assuming the best. Try to be as clear about your needs as possible, and ask your sister for assistance in terms of working things out. I like to say that people only like to get prescriptions from their doctors. That is to say, it's almost always a failed strategy to tell others what they should be doing or how they should be thinking about a given situation. On the other hand, respectfully asking for help implies that you see the other, in this case your sister, as both reasonable and generous. It will also be helpful down the road, if you need to become more aggressive, because you'll know that you sincerely tried to be fair and reasonable.

Perhaps you and your siblings should consult with a family therapist, both to try and understand what may be going on and to come up with a strategy for change. It's not clear from your question if one of your concerns is that your mother is being controlled and exploited. If so, you should consider contacting a lawyer and also contacting elder protective services in your county. Let me be clear, taking such strong action would be your last option.

I hope this helps. Please let us know how it turns out.