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Q1. My 72 year old widowed mother recently moved in with my widowed sister who has a house in Illinois. Lately my brother and I have been having phone conversations with our mother in which she complains about the arguments she and my sister are having, after which they sometimes do not speak to each other for days . My mother wants to move back to Pennsylvania, although, since she gave up an unusually low rent apartment there, she really has no place to move to that she could afford. My sister will not discuss this with us. What can I do to help?

A1. Carolyn Bartlett:
I don't know how this decision was made, but I am assuming your mom thought it was good idea at the time to give up a low rent apartment and move. Both your mom and your sister may have had idealized expectations about living together. Since it is your sister's home, it would seem that they are dealing with some role reversal. Your mom is probably experiencing grief at the loss of her home and community, as well as her independence. They both have sustained the loss of a spouse. You and your brother may also be trying to make meaning of difficult emotions that are part of the mix here.

Nothing brings up unresolved family dynamics like aging and dependency of parents. Your mom is complaining to you and your brother. You and your brother are talking to each other and your mother but your sister won't talk to you about the situation. Is that an familiar pattern? Would family discussions with all of you be possible? Family sessions can be facilitated by a skilled neutral third party if that would make it less threatening. Some creativity is needed if you can not all be in the same place, but it could be done.

Both family history and the current crisis are probably stirred up and if you choose a family mediation or counseling route to approaching this dilemma it is helpful to think through what your focus is and decide what you will or will not be dealing with. If you choose to contract the help of professional this clarity will also help you in making an appropriate choice. If the situation is basically safe and there is nothing clearly helpful that you can do, you may need to wait it out and try to support both your sister and your mother as best you can while they make their adjustment or necessary changes. Feeling concern and responsibility for situations that you have no control over is stressful. Use your support system.

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Katie Kachidurian
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