Q: I live near my father, who is getting on in age. My older sister lives hundreds of miles away. When she visits for the holidays she always gives me advice on what I should or shouldn’t be doing to help Dad. She’s no help the rest of the year--it’s like she’s making up for lost time. I’m sick of dreading this holiday anxiety, how can I get her to stop?
I totally get this kind of holiday anxiety for caregivers. Your sister shows up and it feels like she questions everything you’ve been doing. She doesn’t seem to recognize or appreciate your efforts — it’s like she thinks she could do better. Then she flies out again without having to deal with the reality of day-to-day. And you’re left feeling hurt and taken for granted.
I get that. Now, let’s consider her perspective.
I suspect your sister is keenly aware she can’t be there as much as you need her, and that’s painful. That’s probably causing a lot of holiday anxiety for her. And her guilt is compounded by the fact that, when she comes to visit, the changes she sees are much more dramatic than those you encounter being there every day. Her immediate response is to try to affirm her value by offering advice.
But I wouldn’t conclude this means your sister thinks you’re incompetent, or can’t handle things. To me, her ‘advice’ is a signal that she trusts you. She views you as the lynchpin between Dad’s worsening condition and her desire to help.
To resolve this holiday anxiety, you’ll need to find a way to share your thoughts with her without being defensive, or, even worse, accusatory. For caregivers that can be really hard, because it’s natural to feel unsure yourself of how well you’re doing. Your sister’s critiques only exacerbate those doubts.
The thing is, most caregivers are thrown into the job — it’s often less about what a caregiver chooses, and more of a logistical reality based on who lives closest. So, learning to be a caretaker is typically a process of trial and error. That takes tremendous resilience and courage. You’re facing new obstacles every day, and learning as you go along.
Try talking with your sister about the real facts of the situation – that you live closer to your father, and that makes you the default caretaker. Perhaps if she were closer, she would take on that role, but she isn’t.
Essentially, you are your father’s “guide” through the forest of aging. You are holding his hand, walking him through the dense woods, day to day, making decisions about which path to take. For your sister to run into the forest and grab his hand and run in a different direction is disorienting to both him and to you.
You can recognize that she wants to help, and invite her in by welcoming that help. But, offer a little guidance. While you are looking at tactical everyday issues, like keeping Dad fed, dressed and on his medical regimen, perhaps your sister can look at the situation from more of a big-picture perspective. Then she can help guide your journey on that forest path.
For instance, I worked for seven years with a Navy Seal commander, and he told me, “I can see the danger directly in front of me, but I rely on the guy in the helicopter to see what’s all around me.” If your sister “helicopters in” a few times a year, maybe you can rely on her for that outside perspective. For example, she can gauge if you seem more short-tempered than the last visit. Or if Dad seems more disoriented. Perhaps she can research long-term care options for Dad.
When you’re ready, I’d encourage you to go ahead and have the conversation. Don’t wait for the holidays, and don’t worry about needing to talk in person. Just find a calm space inside yourself, and, whenever you have the courage to do so, give your sister a call.