Sibling extremely dependent on increasingly frail parents
February 11, 2016 12:10 PM   Subscribe

My parents are in their 70s. My 38-year-old sister has severe social anxiety and she is unnecessarily dependent on my parents as caretakers. I worry about my parents' health. How can I encourage my sister to be more independent? How can I encourage my parents to take a step back? How can I communicate to everyone that I will never take over the caretaking position and my sister needs to learn adult living skills?

I believe that my sister has severe social anxiety. She has never dated, or had any friends as an adult. She does have a college degree and she works in an administrative role in a doctor's office. Her anxiety, however, prevents her from pursuing any sort of activities outside of work. She is able to get groceries and clothes, but she can't go into a coffee shop by herself, or go to a movie by herself. She relies on my parents to take her "out." My parents center their activities - like going on vacation or going out to eat - around her schedule so that they can take her along too.

My parents have tried to construct a narrative of "capability" around her, most likely in the hope that she would build on it. Instead, she's just gotten more dependent. My mom has had 2 strokes and a knee replacement and is also partially blind, while my dad has stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer. They are really not in a situation where they can be caretakers. I am worried sick about how my sister's dependency affects their health.

Still, caretaking is what my sister expects, often with an angry, entitled edge. My parents arranged the purchase of a 2200-sq-ft house for her, putting down $60,000 so she could afford the mortgage. Now they are responsible for the maintenance and repairs on a second house in addition to their own. My sister adopted a dog after my parents got her the house; now my parents are also responsible for taking the dog on near-daily walks and providing it veterinary care. My dad still changes the oil in my sister's car and is responsible for repairs and car maintenance as well. My dad has also replaced the big 4' x 8' hardboard siding panels on her house, and he's climbed on the roof to fix her shingles -- activities which put him at risk for a fall! Every 4-5 years or so they will give their old car to my sister so she has a newer one to drive.

My parents also feed into my sister's anxieties. For example, the cable company was installing new cable lines in my sister's neighborhood and they asked her to leave her back gate open. My sister was petrified that kids would come into her yard if she left the gate open, so she asked my dad to spend a day over at her house to let the cable company through the locked gate.

I'm 41, live out of state, and watching my parents' health deteriorate while my sister grows even more dependent on them is heartbreaking. Also, I feel like my sister has been shielded from learning crucial adult living skills. I will not be able to step in and assume the "caretaking" position when my parents are no longer able to fulfill it. I feel that this whole situation is making my sister's life worse, not better.

What should I do? The whole thing makes me so sad. My sister communicates very little with me. Every few months or so she'll send me a longer e-mail telling me that I need to start a business so that I can provide her with employment because she doesn't like her job. I realize that my sister should be in therapy, but that's not an option she's likely to pursue.

When I have brought up my concerns to my parents in the past, they have brushed it off as jealously or sibling rivalry. It's not, of course, and that assertion really hurts. They've also told me that I should stick to parenting my own kids (10 & 6) and that they will stick to parenting my sister. This situation is something that will affect me and my family in the future (heck, it affects my family NOW) but my efforts to communicate that have been unsuccessful. I'm just at a loss.

Today I am upset because my mom just had hand surgery and my dad is still going over to my sister's house to walk her dog. My sister works less than a mile from her house. My dad has anxiety, too, and my sister knows how to manipulate him. She will get angry and call repeatedly about the most mundane things - she'll want my dad to troubleshoot her computer, or install new light fixtures, or apply weed killer or fertilizer to her yard. All things that she can do herself. So, tell me - is there a way that I can address my concerns so that they will be heard and not dismissed?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Everyone here are adults. They are their decisions to make, no matter how poorly they are made.

You keeping firm boundaries with your sister (and probably little contact as necessary) is what will keep you sane.

Keep talking to your parents, but don't mention sister. Give a complete brushoff/deflect when they talk about what you sister is doing, a'la "gee, that's nice. How's the weather there? Did you see how local sports team sported ?"

When your parents pass, know you're not responsible for sister. Also be prepared that any will/estate may get nasty with sister. If you're executing it, lawyer lawyer lawyer. If you're cut out and everything's left to the sister, consider it a gift - the price of not having to deal with or take care of sister.

And, probably, take some therapy yourself for this. Might give you better tools to handle situation and talk with your parents.
posted by k5.user at 12:17 PM on February 11, 2016 [31 favorites]

You have tried to fix this situation and your parents have rebuffed you.

Unfortunately, they are getting something out of enabling her. All you can do is seek to gain acceptance of this. Therapy helps. :(
posted by heathrowga at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

They broke her and now they are stuck with her. They don't seem to mind. It is a sick thing that they have done but it's gone on long enough that you can't do anything about it. Your sister is partially a victim here. Partially, because she's been doing it for so long that she is now choosing the abuse. Leave it alone. You now have three adults who are perfectly happy with their disfunction. You can't change it, you can't fix it. Once your parents can't do it anymore, she will either have to grow up or make a mess in someone else's life. You not taking care of her will be the biggest gift that you can give her. Plan on not getting anything from their estate. If they will listen to you, you can ask them to form a trust so that your sister is always taken care of by the estate.

All you can really do is learn from their mistakes and build your children's confidence up enough to allow them to one day leave the nest.
posted by myselfasme at 12:19 PM on February 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

The relationship is co-dependent, not one-sided. Your dad especially must like feeling needed, having purpose. Walking the dog every day is not so bad, it will keep him feeling better than he would otherwise.

They're set in their ways, something serious (like more serious than cancer apparently) will have to happen before they're forced to change things. Just remember, when judging your sister - she isn't you. She isn't capable like you are in terms of adulting. Feel sorry for her because the time will come when she has to be on her own. But it isn't today, apparently.
posted by lizbunny at 12:22 PM on February 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

It's hard to watch, but unless you can get Dr. Phil interested in taking this on, and everyone agrees to go, there's no good way of getting into it without disrupting the dysfunctional apple cart.

I might go for a visit and sit everyone down and say, "I'm concerned about how things will change for you guys as Mom and Dad's health declines. You know I believe that you are all too dependent on each other and unless you have a plan in place for when your health declines to a point where you can't help sister in the way she's used to, I don't think she's equipped to live on her own. I want to be very clear, as much as I love you all, I have my own family and aside from the usual sibling support, I will not be providing the same levels of crippling assistance that Mom and Dad provide. You're all entitled to live as you see fit, and so am I."

But good luck with that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:26 PM on February 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

It sounds like your parents and sister are close, and happy with the status quo. My guess is that, this way, your parents feel useful and your sister feels loved. Win-win.

It will help no one for you to create a wedge between your sister and your parents.

Your sister has a job and a home, and it sounds like a pretty stable life. It happens to be one you hold in contempt, but that's irrelevant (which your parents have told you, by telling you to butt out).

I think you should just let sleeping dogs lie.
posted by rue72 at 12:27 PM on February 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

This situation is something that will affect me and my family in the future (heck, it affects my family NOW)

How? I think the thing to work on here is minimizing this. This is what you can control, everyone here is an adult making weird adult choices, but you can control yourself and how your new family handles them.

If it were me (and in many many ways my life is similar here) I'd reduce contact and insulate and protect myself from the crazy. You live out of state so you're already ahead of the curve here.
posted by French Fry at 12:31 PM on February 11, 2016 [26 favorites]

Given as everyone involved here is an adult, I would focus on detaching emotionally as much as possible from the situation. Yes, it sucks, and it is probably going to blow up at some point in the future, but you don't actually have to be responsible for all of that. It sounds like your sister actually is able to function to some degree -- she has a job, she lives separately from your parents, etc. So at some point when they pass away, she'll have some skills to work with and will either sink or swim.

Certainly I would draw clear boundaries when you are asked for things you are not going to provide -- for example, shut her down if she's asking you to give her a job and make it very clear that this is something you are never going to do (indeed, I'm not even sure how that would work since you live in another state!). And if it's not already clear to your sister/parents, make sure they know that this is not going to change once your parents are no longer around. But beyond that, you gotta let them do their thing even if it is objectively a poor life choice.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:39 PM on February 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Every few months or so she'll send me a longer e-mail telling me that I need to start a business so that I can provide her with employment because she doesn't like her job.

You reply ever so briefly to stuff like this that no, this will not happen.

This situation is something that will affect me and my family in the future (heck, it affects my family NOW)

When it comes up in conversation, mention ever so briefly that it will be sad when mom and dad die and sis is thrust out into the world unprepared, but you have no means to take over. Then take your parents' advice and butt out, stick to raising your own kids.

You are too emotionally involved as is. Do therapy or start a journal so as to come to terms with your feelings. Then make your peace with the fact that you cannot control them and that means letting them fall on their face if necessary.

Just stay out now. That is the best means to ensure sis won't expect you to take over when mom and dad cannot help anymore.
posted by Michele in California at 12:43 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's nice that you're concerned but it's not your situation to fix. Your sister and parents are adults. Your sister has a job and a house. You do NOT have to take on your sister when your parents become unable.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:44 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your sister's dependency makes your parents feel loved. That's probably a dysfunctional dynamic, but it might be one of the only sources of affection available to them.

How do you make your parents feel loved? Are you affectionate with them? Do you ask them for assistance? Or, are you withholding and exasperated with their co-dependent relationship with your sister? Focus on yourself and your own relationship with your parents. Be more supportive of them, show them more caring, and they might learn to be less dependent on your sister (yes, they are just as dependent on her as she is on them).

Other than that, stay out of it.
posted by scantee at 12:50 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I concur that you need to stay out of it: there's nothing that can be done from outside to change the dynamic.

However, you may want to ask your parents what provisions they have made to provide for your sister once they are gone. Or to help you provide for them as they become more infirm. Do they have a will? Is there a trust for their property? Do they have an executor? (Preferably not you.) Will they let you help them make an appointment with an estate attorney to talk about what they can do for themselves and your sister?

My concern here is that one or either of them will become debilitated and your sister is incapable of providing care, and then the entire structure will topple. And you'll be unable to stop yourself from trying to help, at least your parents. If there's something in place in advance, that will help a great deal.
posted by suelac at 12:52 PM on February 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

Your sister holds down a job, lives on her own, shops for groceries and clothing, and manages to pay a mortgage and keep the lights on. Much of what she doesn't do -- like going to the movies or out to dinner or on vacation -- is optional.

In short: I realise your sister isn't achieving the standards you would like her to, but she is in fact very independent and has plenty of adult skills. If you genuinely accepted that your sister has severe social anxiety, you would be tremendously proud of these accomplishments.

You are in an incredibly fortunate position. When your parents can no longer be care takers, or pass on, your sister will be able to hold the basics of her own life together. You don't have to do anything.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:54 PM on February 11, 2016 [26 favorites]

The best you can do is get them all thinking about long-term solutions. Initiate a conversation with all three of them that starts like this...

"You know Mom and Dad will not always be around to help Sis. I will be unable to help. What steps do you think you should take now to make that whole transition easier on everyone?"

If the conversation is not shut down immediately, you just keep repeating "I won't be able to help. "That won't be possible." "You need a solution that does not include me being a caretaker."

(The financials are none of our business, but you probably should prepare yourself for the possibility that your sister will receive a larger share of your parents' estate "because she needs it more.")
posted by raisingsand at 1:06 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Somehow you escaped the co-dependent mess that everyone else in your family is stuck in. Good job! That said, it may be that you have your own anxieties and you are making them about this issue.

This situation is something that will affect me and my family in the future (heck, it affects my family NOW)

Doesn't have to. Its very hard to say "no" to someone who claims to need things but this is what good boundaries are all about. I agree with most people that everyone's adulting the way they seem to want to here, and you've made your concerns known. It definitely stings when people reply to sensible advice with nasty name calling (I have parents not unlike your parents, and a sister that is more functional but still in a web with my mother that I think isn't super healthy for either of them, I get called names and it's shitty.).

I think the best thing you can do right now, is help your parents deal with some of their estate planning type situations (will, health care proxy, etc) so that you can have a decent conversation with them about how you are not going to pick up where they leave off with your sister.

It's also unclear to me if they bitch about this arrangement or if it just bothers you. Like, if I was your dad and dealing with some shitty health stuff, having some jobs to do that needed to be done by ME might be a useful thing. If people are bitching to you about the situation, by all means bring up the "This is a CHOICE you guys" angle to them, but if everyone is more or less content, well... the world needs all sorts of people.
posted by jessamyn at 1:18 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best thing you can do is distance distance distance yourself. You do NOT owe anything to your parents or sister to take care of her when they no longer can. I would have one final conversation with your parents where you clearly state you will not be picking up where they leave off in regards to your sister and you fully support them leaving all of their assets to her. Suggest (as noted above) they structure their estate in the form of a trust for your sister with someone besides you as the person who manages the trust. Try to have the best relationship yo can with your parents while they are still around but make it based on the ground rules that anything to do with their enabling of your sister will not be part of the relationship.

When you sister next tells you that you need to start a business and give her a job clearly state to her that this will never happen, you will never employ or support her.

Sounds harsh, but you have to protect yourself, your family, your assets and your sanity first, before anything to do with the rest of your family.

Something that helped me with my mom and my sister was to realize that mom didn't need to "be protected" from my sister taking advantage of her. She was fully aware and a willing participant. I've made it clear that mom better make sure my sister will be able to take care of her (and herself) because I will not be able to contribute anything to either of them.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 1:30 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

My brother still lives with my mom part time. He has a job and a place of his own. I am aware she does things for him like cook, do laundry and pack his lunch for work -- or did last time I was in the know. I absolutely do not discuss this with my mother and very rarely communicate with my brother.

But I also know my brother is an excellent mechanic with industry connections who keeps all the cars in the family running for ridiculously cheap prices of parts and "free" labor. So one of the reasons no one talks to me about the situation is because I absolutely will not listen to any BS that my brother is simply helpless. He cooks his own meals and does his own laundry at his place. The real reason he won't do that stuff at mom's is not incompetence, it is that mom is the worst female chauvinist sow I have ever met. She gives men hell for trying to do women's work at her place.

Your sis is already trying to drag you into taking care of her. Rest assured, when mom and dad die, sis will very likely find someone else to buy her sob story. As someone who is medically handicapped and routinely attracts men who want to play hero to their image of me as helpless damsel in distress, I can testify firsthand that there is no shortage of people who need to be needed and will be happy to swoop in and rescue her. It absolutely does not need to be you.

The single best thing you can do is refuse to get dragged into it currently. It is the best insurance you can arrange for protecting you from future expectations of this sort.

My mother and brother are both adults. They can make their own decisions. Their relationship is none of my damn business. For that matter, I have two adult sons who still live with me. None of us has any fantasy that we are incapable of making other choices. This is working for us currently. If it stops working, the arrangement will change.

Butt out entirely.
posted by Michele in California at 1:43 PM on February 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

There is an organization here in Canada called the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network I( that was started by aging parents of people with disabilities who wanted to build networks that could continue to lovingly support their children after they died. Their focus may be slightly different but they have lots of resources. There are also people who can be paid to guide your family through the process of establishing these networks. In some areas they are called 'Independent Network Facilitators'. They are experienced with working with families whose members may not realize or may be resistant to hearing that their relationships with their adult children are co-dependent or are not helping, etc.

You can download free copies of some of their materials here: And feel free to MeMail me for more info, I used to be a facilitator, still believe in the process but realized that I am not personally suited for the work.
posted by deadtrouble at 2:04 PM on February 11, 2016

I am a recovering agoraphobe. I'm currently medicated and functioning at a level I couldn't have dreamed of a decade ago. While I'm not disagreeing that there seems to be a certain amount of co-dependency here, your parents know more about your sister's mental health and capabilities than you do. I am 36, married, mother of a teenager, and as I said, functioning fairly well, but I have, and always will, a mental illness that makes me rely on my family more than judgmental outsiders might deem healthy. This is not your battle to fight. Your family has made it clear that this is not your problem, so, for your own well-being, I hope you can let it go.
posted by Ruki at 2:20 PM on February 11, 2016 [15 favorites]

Just wanted to chime in and say there is basically nothing you can do except distance yourself and set hard boundaries. My family is pretty messed up and my sister has a similar co-dependent relationship with my parents. She's 28 and my parents still pay her rent, vet bills and they bought her a friggin car recently... Just the tip of the iceberg. I tried to help everyone see reason, that they were enabling my sister's bad behavior etc, but no one wants to hear these kinds of things. It's unfortunate. I'm in therapy trying to learn to just accept my shitty family dynamics and my therapist has been encouraging of my attempts to distance myself from my family and live my own life. I live in a different state than them and that has helped a lot. We can't force family members to not make shitty decisions and the more you try the more emotionally draining it will be for you. If you've already said your piece and they rejected it you can do no more. Good luck.
posted by FireFountain at 2:48 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

is there a way that I can address my concerns so that they will be heard and not dismissed?


If you believe that your parents are mentally competent to make these decisions, then you need to back out of this. It's frustrating to see people we love make a decision we feel is wrong, but it's not your call.

In many ways, I have tremendous empathy for your position. My parents and sibling have a very interwoven life and a lack of boundaries that perplexes me. My sister definitely gets more assets, time and attention, but she's also present in their lives on a daily basis. I do worry about the significant burden on my folks. On the other hand, my sister is physically there and I'm not. Am I sometimes jealous? Yeah. Not of the financial stuff but of the "we took your sister to dinner last night." It's the impromptu times when they get to hang out (and bicker or watch tv or whatever). Lots of people and cultures have very interwoven family relationships. The idea that adulthood means autonomy isn't the only way life works.

If there are no concerns about mental competency, then your parents get to make their choices.
posted by 26.2 at 2:51 PM on February 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

I will add that I lived with my parents for nearly a year during my divorce. I learned things about the situation during that year that no one would have ever thought to tell me. The minute I moved out, I was much less in the loop about the details of what was going on.

You don't even live in the same city. You honestly don't know as much about the situation as you think you do.

I could argue this long and hard from both sides of the equation a la "They are just co dependent and sick and twisted and SAVE YOURSELF!" or "Your sister's needs are not something you understand etc." I am medically handicapped, so is my oldest son and we take care of each other. I completely have sympathy for that scenario, though my son and I are incredibly clear this is a choice and neither of us has to stay. We choose to stay because it makes our lives better than not staying. Maybe that will change at some point, either because one of us doesn't want to put up with the other or because our circumstances change and we are more able to function without that much built in support.

Long and short, it does not really matter whether what your sister and parents are doing is neurotic and codependent or is rooted in a legitimate need that a handicapped adult child has, your desire to butt in and dictate how they interact is not healthy. It isn't healthy for you and it isn't healthy for them.

If you do not want to take care of your sister after mom and dad die or don't have the resources, you do not have to. But, also, your parents seem to have significant resources. What they do with them is not your business. Also also, having spent a lot of time really, really ill, sometimes taking care of other people is good distraction from my own problems. Perhaps your ill father would rather be fixing the roof at her house than laying in bed watching reruns and wallowing in self pity. Maybe that feels a whole lot better to him than feeling old and useless and staring death in the face.

Either way, your behavior sounds codependent. Work on your sense of boundaries. Learn to protect yourself from things you want no part of, but also learn to butt out and let others run their own lives.
posted by Michele in California at 2:59 PM on February 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

I want to just chip in and say - it's probably true that there's nothing you can/should do given that they've asked you not to, but I think there is a lot of judgment and failure to empathize in this thread.

If my parents were dealing with:

stage 4 cancer
2 strokes
near blindness
multiple surgeries

and someone was making them endanger their safety and exert themselves unnecessarily?

I would be fucking livid.

You have my empathy, OP. I'd hate to see that go down. For now, the best you can do is come to terms with what is. I suggest meditation.
posted by namesarehard at 4:03 PM on February 11, 2016 [26 favorites]

I sympathize with your frustration at your parents' and sister's mutual web of codependence, enabling, and dysfunction. (And I feel sorry for that poor dog! Getting a dog and expecting your parents to take care of it is what little kids do.)

However, there is nothing you can do about it. They are all grown adults. It may well be that your parents relish your sister's dependence on them for whatever reason. Nobody's gotten therapy or done much to stop it. This is maddening, but, realistically, you can't change this.

In your position, I would do what Suelac suggests and talk to your parents about their will, power of attorney, end-of-life care issues, and plans for their estate. Suelac is right that if one or both of your parents becomes debilitated or dies, then the entire structure will crumble, and you have to pick up the pieces at least with your parents.

You might also want to check in with a hospital social worker (if your dad is a cancer patient there should be a social worker available for patients and families) or with your local department of aging and adult services, regarding professional support for your parents and sister. Even if you make it 100%, crystal clear that you will not be caring for your sister after your parents die or become incapacitated, and that you have your own family to care for, it's possible that your parents will go "LALALA WE CAN'T HEAR YOU FAAAAMILY SHE IS YOUR SISTER FAAAAAMILY." A professional might be able to find resources for your parents and sister, as well as drive home the fact that you will NOT be caring for her. And you have no obligation to.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:04 PM on February 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

Have you read the Harriet Lerner books (Dance of Anger, Dance of Intimacy, and Dance of Connection)? Semi-cheesy titles aside, they do a really good job of talking about these kinds of dynamics, how to stay in loving communication with people whose choices you don't agree with, and how to be very realistic about how little change to expect. Congrats again to you for getting out.
posted by salvia at 5:41 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm with suelac on this: right now they can work this scenario and you can stay out of it, but what happens when the dominoes start to fall down and your parents can't care for her any more? And they need a caregiver? How much of this IS going to fall down on your head? Who's going to be the caregiver here? Is she totally incompetent to take them to the doctor if they can't drive? You do need to have a serious talk with your parents (preferably without sister there) about this and if they have any kind of plan at all or if it's all going to be on you.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:52 PM on February 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

I hope you're not feeling piled upon, OP. I completely understand your impulse to try and do something about the situation you've been watching unfold. I see a similar dynamic between members of my own extended family, and it's extremely difficult to watch. It seems easy for outsiders to say MYOB, when doing so just risks straining relationships even further or having a snowball effect with other relatives... I wonder what the relationships are like between your children and their grandparents, for example? Because I'm, sadly, not at all close with my grandmother on that side, nor my grandfather before he passed. As nice of a person as grandma is, the constant undercurrent of codependent drama just permeates its way into everything.

But the MYOB crowd aren't wrong... despite the above, I don't have a better solution either, which is why, as I said, I opt to MYOB.
posted by wats at 8:06 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it will help, but you are not alone. This is a common problem - I struggle with it too.

This is how I deal with it: even though I get frustrated with both my parents and my needy sibling, I frame it thusly: "I don't want to be any of these people. I don't want their lives or their problems. They can make their own decisions."

And then I try to do everything I can to make my interactions with them good and supportive. I try to bring in as much positivity and love as possible. There's going to be a day when my parents are gone and my needy sibling is going to be pretty lost (shrug) and we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

It is hard and I really and truly wish you the best.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:41 AM on February 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

You know, I am completely sympathetic to the big feelings involved when relatives are ailing. But you didn't ask what you can do to support your ailing parents or something like that, nor did you provide any parameters for what you can bring to the table. And maybe the answer is that you can't actually help your parents and you are feeling helpless, and that is why you are focusing on all they do for your sister as maybe something you can do something about.

Perhaps the takeaway here is that you should take a few days, think through it, and come back in a week or three with a different Ask related to how concerned you are about your parents, your desire to help in some way, and the long list of constraints making that difficult. And maybe that would get you more action-oriented answers concerning what you can do to help rather than being told MYOB and butt out.

You might consider reading through this Ask. It is also about how to help one relative when the relationship between them and another is complicating matters.
posted by Michele in California at 10:56 AM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

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