The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: When eldercare devolves to sibling bullying

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn:

Five years ago, my mother became unable to continue living alone, so she came to live with me, my husband and two young children. As she physically declined, she paid for upgrades to our home that allowed her to stay with us longer. However, in the last year, she began to fail and I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, so we made the difficult decision for her to move into assisted living. She is doing well, and I was able to return to school and go back to work full-time.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Now, my mother-in-law is unable to live alone. Unbeknownst to us, my husband’s sisters put her house on the market and told her, since we have a “senior-citizen-ready” house, she would live with us! We only found out when my husband called his mother for Mother’s Day.

To his credit, my husband said this was not going to happen due to my health issues; he travels for his job, and the primary responsibility for her care would fall to me.

His sisters’ response was to call us “selfish” and state that caring for their mother does not suit their lifestyles since they are raising young families (they have forgotten that our children were young when my mother was with us). They won’t speak to us and will not let our children contact their cousins. My mother-in-law told my husband she is “hurt beyond words” that we will not do for her what we did for my mother.

How do we handle this?


That’s the appeal of chutzpah, for its practitioners at least; it doesn’t leave you with a whole lot to handle.

Either you cave, and pay dearly for it, or stand tall — and pay dearly for it.

These steep consequences are the meager leavings that you and your husband get to discuss and manage.

Even then, you’ve already decided the consequences to your health rule out caregiving; that seems rock-solid to me, except perhaps if turning away your mother-in-law meant consigning her to the streets. The hypocritical bullying of two siblings hardly rises to that level of emergency.

The consequences of your other choice — sticking to “no” — are largely in your in-laws’ hands, since silent treatments cut your options nearly to nil. (It’s another appealing weapon among the punitive.) Your husband can certainly write each sister a heartfelt, non-angry letter — restating that your health precludes caregiving; that he stands ready to help however else he can; that he knows firsthand how difficult a time they’re all facing, Mom especially; that their volunteering him without asking first, and now shunning him, mystifies him and breaks his heart — but it’s hardly a satisfying remedy, if “remedy” even applies.

Which brings us to your mother-in-law, your only real opportunity to “handle this,” since she, apparently, will speak.

So speak he must: “Of course you’re hurt — I understand. [Wife’s] health simply won’t allow this, though. I’m stunned and saddened you were told otherwise without my knowledge.

“But that doesn’t change the fact that we need a Plan B. Are you ready to discuss one, Mom, or do you need time to think?”

You all have a right to be firm. To stand out in this crowd, though, you apparently need to be kind.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at



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