How to deal with and help in an emotionally charged family situation?
July 10, 2018 1:15 PM   Subscribe

My mother has very little income. My sister and her husband have been helping. Now they want out. And they want us to take over. Only problem is: we don't have the money, and we are in another country. It's getting nasty.

My mother became a widow last year after my stepdad succumbed to a long term illness. She was the sole caregiver and had to quit working at the midpoint of his illness as they could not afford help. As far as I can tell, since she is 65, she receives money in the form of her SS and SSI (unless those are two separate things?) and seriously, that is it.

My BIL bought a condo as an investment, I guess, about three or four years ago. He let my mom and stepdad live in it for a reduced rental rate. She is living there now. He wants to sell it as the financial burden for him and my sister is putting a strain on their marriage. (They own their own home about a five minute drive away from my mom.) They have offered to have her come live with them, but the only catch is that she would have to give up her support cat (believe me, this cat has been a tremendous help her since my father's death) as they are allergic and own a big dog. I floated the idea that perhaps the cat could live in her space if she moved in and was shot down.

In any case, we were made aware of this situation right before we left for vacation. It took the form of a series of texts from my sister that went from anxious to threatening. My partner and I had a serious talk on our return. We figured we could send about $200CAD a month, and even then that's a strain on our own finances. We are being asked for financial help and it's not that we don't want to, it's that we have a finite amount of resources ourselves and we have already tightened our belts even before this happened.

We are trying to be helpful and asking what it is expected of us, and my BIL isn't being a jerk, but every email exchange contains a lengthy reminder of everything he has done for her and how "he's done". I mean, I sympathize, and in the current US climate, this must be terrible. And then because we can't send money, or at least the amount of money asked (which I am not even sure what the amount is as it seems to change), my sister sent me a very hurtful text in which I was told "fuck you you and your husband are pieces of shit and selfish assholes and you will never see the girls again you fucking care take of your mother." Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have been sent terrible texts when I don't do what she wants.

They are located in Greenville, SC. I am looking for affordable housing options for seniors. I am thinking of anything I can do to ease this situation. And I am pretty sure that whatever the outcome, my relationship with my only sibling--we have never been close--might be permanently damaged. I want to help but I cannot help in the way they want me to. I wish I could.

Advice for defusing this already really fraught long distance family situation?
posted by Kitteh to Human Relations (51 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely keep it a secret from now on, from your sister and brother in law, if you treat yourself to a vacation.
posted by catspajammies at 1:20 PM on July 10, 2018 [20 favorites]

Did you force them to buy the condo and financially support her? They are acting like you made some sort of deal, or forced them to do things they didn't want to do, and now you "owe" them. Just because they're resentful doesn't make it your fault, nor does it mean you have to do what they say.

I think it's fine to say, "I can do X. I wish I could do more, but I can't." Especially given her abusive texts to you, I'm not sure you owe her more than that.

(Figuring out if there are other ways to help your mother might be a slightly separate topic. You may need to separate the two, in your head at least, for a bit to get clear on where you feel your obligations lie.)
posted by lazuli at 1:26 PM on July 10, 2018 [21 favorites]

Response by poster: We were not consulted on the condo purchase. We are not consulted on any of the financial support they have given her, which believe me, I am deeply grateful for. I am very grateful for all the help they have given her.

And yes, our vacation was two days at my in-laws little rustic cottage with no running water. I told my mom since I talk to her nearly every day in case she was going to try and call that I wouldn't be in town.
posted by Kitteh at 1:28 PM on July 10, 2018

This is difficult. A few things I'd be thinking about at this point

- Could your mom come live with you two?
- Is there room to move with Support Cat? I know you say no, but considering alternatives....
- Are there other practical options for mom's housing?

And then I'd get a handle on your own anxieties and your relationship with your mom (and not your sister). How is it? Do you feel like you are responsible to her? No right answer here, but I think your response should have to do with that and not your sister's attitudes? How does your mom feel about all of this in general? Does she have any opinions about your sister's behavior generally?

And then, to your sister's abusive behavior. It's a challenge, right? Like you know she's been stressed and is not her best self. At the same time, there's really a big gap between being irritable and crabby and being threatening and abusive.

So, if it were me, and I am keeping in mind that it is not, I'd be really clear that you two are only going to work together if the abuse from your sister stops. You can be compassionate but also clear "If you talk to me that way again, I will work on this issue on my own but I will not be communicating with you" I don't know what your family situation was like, but I am here to say it's okay to have boundaries. It's okay not to be abused. And that's especially true even if the person has a point about whatever else they are talking about. So you can either be like "This is what we will contribute" (and be realistic about it, don't martyr yourselves just because your sister has made choices that are taxing for her) or you can offer to work with her on other options, but in any case, the abuse stops or you don't interact with her. And I'd try to make some sort of connection with your mother.

And if abusive bullshit like this runs in the family and your mom is likewise like this. I'd wash your hands and be done with the whole thing and focus on your chosen family and block their numbers.
posted by jessamyn at 1:28 PM on July 10, 2018 [59 favorites]

Did you force them to buy the condo and financially support her? They are acting like you made some sort of deal, or forced them to do things they didn't want to do, and now you "owe" them. Just because they're resentful doesn't make it your fault, nor does it mean you have to do what they say. QFT

This is not your fault. If your mother feels forced to move in with your sister and lose her cat, that will not be your fault either. As noted above, helping your mom find a place that she can afford and also keep her cat is different than doing what your sister demands that you do. You aren't obligated to even answer her texts. Sometimes people take on more than they can handle and then blame other people for it. Please do not put yourself and your partner in an untenable situation because your sister made some choices that have not ended well. Of course you should be supportive of your sister and of your mother to the extent you can be, but not at the cost of your own well-being. Don't do that, please.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:32 PM on July 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

Also, +1000% what jessamyn said.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Some more information might help -

What's your mother's role in this? Is she healthy? Is she interested in going back to work part time?

Is there a social worker involved? Is your mother eligible for any additional benefits, like housing assistance?

Are your sister and bil generally messy communicators (with respect to clarity, not drama, unfortunately) - would you expect them under usual circumstances to be able to provide a clear picture of what they expect from you?

How comparable are your financial situations?
posted by trig at 1:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

As far as I can tell, since she is 65, she receives money in the form of her SS and SSI (unless those are two separate things?) and seriously, that is it.

Was your stepfather eligible for more SS than your mom? It is my understanding that she may qualify to receive his benefits.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Is your mother mentally incompetent? Because I'm wondering why your question at no point mentions what she wants or your relationship with her.

Ask her what are her plans if she can't move in with your sister? Help her with those. Remember not all help is financial.

Some random ideas off the top of my head. Can you offer to foster her cat for her for a while, while she moves in with your sister, assuming she wants to? Make it sound temporary to give her piece of mind. It would also give you all breathing space to plan & help your sister sell the condo faster, releasing a lot of pressure off of everyone concerned. But does your mother actually want to move in with your sister or is she feeling pressured to? Can you talk to your mother without your sister around & see how she's doing and see what she wants? I think that might give you a clearer idea of how you can actually help.
posted by wwax at 1:39 PM on July 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Are you in another country perpetually? Or are you just there for the two days of vacation? If you're not living in the same country as your relatives then having your mom/her cat live with you are much more complicated endeavors than people might be aware.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:42 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My poor mom ends up being the one caught in the middle. I am sure she is getting an earful from my sister and is probably crying right now too.

She is able-bodied. She would like to work if she can but she doesn't know who would hire a 65-year-old medical admin.

I am trying to research from Ontario what social assistance she might be available for.

We are being told that we knew this was coming and why are we surprised that this is happening; well, my BIL and sister don't ever contact us except to exchange some stupid bit of family drama. I mean, we love our nieces but we hardly ever see them as going to the US means money for visiting. I wish I could see my mom more often but neither of us can afford it.

My sister is a SAHM; my BIL is a computer salesman. Does well from the various getaways they take with the girls throughout the year, I guess? I don't know what that job is like. I work part-time at a hospital; my partner works in university management. I don't know if it's because we don't have kids that they perhaps they think we have extra income? I mean, we live very within our means, but we also don't own a lot either because it's too expensive.

I think she is eligible for my stepdad's SS? She never quite clarifies what is going on with her finances and I think we all need to know so as to move forward.
posted by Kitteh at 1:42 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I live in another country. I have been here for a decade and will likely be here the rest of my life as this is where my husband is from. And my husband and I have been very clear my mom needs to be part of these discussions. We will NOT go behind her back.
posted by Kitteh at 1:44 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Check into whether your stepfather was a war veteran. If he served in any wartime, even for a single day, and it does absolutely not have to be in the battlefield or country of battle, your mother is eligible for VA benefits even after he is dead. They are significant and underused.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:46 PM on July 10, 2018 [11 favorites]

This sounds a lot like your sister and brother-in-law have a much different view of the situation and, rather than discuss it with you and your mother, feel it's been their place to make decisions and have decided their choice is to throw everything in your lap.

I'd imagine your mother had her hands full with the caregiver role and they were able to help her with the day-to-day logistics of keeping things rolling, but that doesn't mean she isn't an independent person capable of figuring things out herself. Barring any medical issues on her part, it's time to ask her what she wants, and then figure out what is available financially and logistically and figure out a compromise.

It's also possible she's more vocal in this than you realize and your sister's stretched thin from acquiescing. Without more details, it's difficult to say. In my own family, one sibling was interacting more with an elderly parent and the other sibling seemed to think they were making decisions, but that wasn't the case. They were just trying to do what the parent wanted to the best of their abilities and within reason.

I guess the best thing might be to call your mom and work from there.
posted by mikeh at 1:46 PM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Definitely worth checking out your stepdad's SS - she could actually have started collecting (a pro-rated portion of) it before reaching retirement age. Since she is past retirement age i think (again, im no expert) that she could get up to the full amount of his benefit, unless his benefit was less than hers is currently which would be of no help. I think you could possibly try getting this help by phone but ideally your mom would go down to a social security office with her relevant paperwork and receive the help she needs making sure shes getting the max benefit.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:49 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Although I can't speak to the specific resources in that state, a lot of other ask.mefi questions have pointed people toward state programs addressing aging communities. South Carolina's page is here.
posted by mikeh at 1:50 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

At this point, you don't even know how much help your mom needs.

Understanding what her total income is, from all sources, then opens the door to getting a bead on any additional senior benefits for which she's eligible. Maybe get that sorted first, as a baseline? Even if you have to pawn it off as, we've said we want to help, and our adviser/accountant/___ needs the full picture of Mom's situation so we can figure out what's feasible, if you don't feel like you're being heard by your relatives (including your Mom, who has been reluctant to clarify -- just saw your update).

Right now any research you're doing is going to be too scattered, because so much of what's available in the US breaks out along economic tiers. Don't spin your wheels, and don't let your sister or her husband make you a punching bag. Get a group conversation going, with an all-hands phone conference or over Skype.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:59 PM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Speaking from personal family experience, being the part of the family that's local to the individual that needs care can bring with a huge load of time & effort that often family members further away are completely unaware of and fail to appreciate how wearing it can be.

Honestly, the fact that your sister is willing to let your mother move in with her is a pretty sizable thing in and of itself. (So long as she isn't being abusive to your mother of course.)

It wouldn't surprise me entirely if some of this was at the root of your sister's obvious bitterness, no matter how unfair it might feel.
posted by pharm at 2:01 PM on July 10, 2018 [39 favorites]

I think you have to cut your sister a break on this one. She is being put in a position where she is carrying all of the emotional and financial labor of caring for your mom. It's crushing her. She's asking you - the only other person in the world who can help - to share this responsibility. Figure something out with your sister.

Yeah your mom might be theoretically be able to take care of herself, but doesn't seem to have been able to do it yet. Support your sister. Support her when she tells your mom she can't keep subsidizing her housing or that she can't take in her cat. Your sister is the one on the front lines here, so she is going to need you to be on her side. Reframe the situation to be "how can I support my sister as she takes on the caretaker role."
posted by KMoney at 2:04 PM on July 10, 2018 [39 favorites]

Yeah, I agree with pharm; these last few years have been stressful on the SC crew, and you've been at a remove because of the geographic distance. Both your sister and your brother-in-law are venting, but that's not helpful in the here and now.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:06 PM on July 10, 2018

"fuck you you and your husband are pieces of shit and selfish assholes and you will never see the girls again you fucking care take of your mother" is not "venting" in any useful sense of the word. If she needs to lash out in that way, she doesn't have to do it in your direction.
posted by lazuli at 2:08 PM on July 10, 2018 [51 favorites]

The immediate situation of your mother’s precarious living arrangements should be given top priority. Your sister and her husband contributed what they felt able to up until now. If your sister and her husband weren’t in the picture and your mom was being evicted from any other rental what would you do? The fact that your sister is offering a place for your mom to stay in her home is nothing to sneeze at. The way your sister has expressed her frustration is not helpful to say the least, but things can feel really raw when someone is perceived to be neglectful. They should have given more lead time in deciding that they’ve been run dry, but that’s where they’re at right now.
posted by alusru at 2:14 PM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Every US area has an Agency on Aging and a United Way that can direct you to them. There is probably senior housing, and there is probably a waiting list. There may be other supports available.

As far as I know, she would get Social Security, not SSI & Soc. Sec.

If B-I-L bought a condo 5 years ago, it might have increased in value; it certainly would have where I live.

My advice: Thank your sister-in-law sincerely for taking care of your Mom. As she continues to take care of your Mom, which she almost certainly will, continue to appreciate her and her family for doing this. Send your sister flowers sometimes, or some other treat; she's doing a lot of work. Decide what you can genuinely afford to contribute, contribute this monthly. Maybe send 50/week, see how it goes. It's your Mom. Request more information like, what does Mom get from Soc. Sec. monthly? Does she have other expenses?

Call Mom regularly. Get her a nice tablet so you can Skype. Send her small cheery gifts. Do not allow another person to define your relationship with your Mom, unless you want that.

Mean, over-the-top emails, texts, etc? This is pure drama, and I would ignore it. Literally, do not respond in any way to dramatic crap. People do it for effect, they often want you to participate in their drama. It doesn't have any benefit whatsoever. Participating in it just prolongs it.
posted by theora55 at 2:14 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

It sucks that she said those things, but I definitely sympathize with your sister and her husband. It is a huge burden and I guess they feel as though they are shouldering all of it (and it sounds like they are too).

You said you're working part-time. Is there any way you can pick up more work? Also, this sounds like an incredibly stressful time for your sister. Other than googling care facilities for your mom, is there anything else you can do to try and make her feel like you're available to help out? Although I don't agree with her choice of words, I can totally understand her feelings of frustration and resentment.

Also, can you try to visit? I mean, if you just drive up to Ottawa and get on a flight to Greenville, a round trip ticket is less than $470 (and go as low as like $250 depending on the days you book). There's only one very quick layover in Philly and the total flight is not long.

It sounds like if you really want to stay a part of the family you gotta make some sacrifices too so this may be a now or never situation.
posted by bluelight at 2:19 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

He wants to sell it as the financial burden for him and my sister is putting a strain on their marriage.

This doesn't FIX any of it, but I think it's worth bearing in mind whenever you are interacting with these people that if you know about a strain on their marriage and they're unhappy with you, then chances are pretty good that the level of strain is like... significantly more than they're actually admitting to? I think you need to treat this like, if nothing else, you need to get your mom into her own housing arrangements to keep her out of the blast radius of a potential divorce, here. It sounds like your BIL is being more civil but like he is feeling significantly put-upon by all of this and your sister's not working is probably contributing to his feeling that way--since it's her mom--and that your mom moving in with them is going to turn that house into a time bomb. If she doesn't need full-time care, she just needs to figure out how to get housing assistance, a job, whatever.
posted by Sequence at 2:20 PM on July 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

I'm really sorry, Kitteh - this sounds hard on all concerned. The "fuck you" text was uncalled for, but I agree with other posters that your sister might be under more strain than you realize, because you and your husband live so far away. If your sister is caring for her own kids and supporting your mom and trying to keep her marriage intact, especially if your BIL is one of those guys who shuffles all caregiving off onto his wife - she's probably cracking under the strain.

Right now, your priority should probably be housing and, if possible, an additional income stream for your mom. If your mom is as fond of her cat as I am of mine, that's her fur baby and it would break her heart to give the cat up, so finding a place, maybe a studio, where Mom and Kitty can live together in peace is important. I found the Lieutenant Governor's Office on Aging which serves the state; additionally there should be more local (city or county) aging and disability services.

If your mom can get a part-time job, some disability and aging pensions are "need based" and some aren't. Find out if your mom's income is needs-based - Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is needs-based, but Social Security is not. If a part-time job is possible, can your mom work through a temp agency? Does her county's Unemployment Development Department offer re-entry programs? I would pull every government string there is, and I know in a red state that can be very little, but your mom is officially a senior citizen so might be entitled to something. A case worker might help.

Good luck! This sounds hard on everyone.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:21 PM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

This Ask gets to me personally, because I'm in a somewhat similar situation: I'm my mother's care provider, and I eventually needed help.

It doesn't help your sister and BIL one whit to tantrum and guilt trip you. They'd do a lot better for themselves and your mom if they reached out to local agencies to find out what kind of assistance your mom might qualify for. That means making a few phone calls to city, county, and state agencies. And as noted above, if your mom or either of her spouses is/was a veteran, she may also qualify for financial assistance from the VA in the form of a monthly pension or reimbursement for medical expenses. Also, many states have programs for indigent seniors that provide help finding affordable housing and also financial assistance, including reimbursement for Medicare premiums, and sometimes also even reimbursement for supplemental health insurance premiums.

You could do the initial outreach on their/your mom's behalf. There may be senior subsidized housing in the area. Your mom probably qualifies for it, and if you're lucky, there may be some vacancies. Another possibility would be financial assistance that would enable her to pay something to your sister/BIL for taking her in, assuming that's the eventual outcome. If they do so, they can claim her as a dependent on their taxes, which is another financial break they'd receive in exchange for taking her in.

I'd start with a call to the county social services, who can provide you with information you can share with your sister. And maybe, once you share your findings with your sister, she and her husband will calm down and be able to handle this in a more rational manner.

You may still need to provide some monthly financial support to your mom, but I wouldn't finalize that until you've found out what other assistance she may qualify for, as your support would count as income and might disqualify her from certain programs.

Good luck.
posted by Lunaloon at 2:21 PM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Lots of good advice above, but this is more immediate. Does your mom have a friend nearby who could keep her cat for her, with you/sister/mom providing food and vet care, and your mom could move into your sister's place until a more long-term solution is found? Mom could still visit on the regular until she found a place for both of them.
posted by kate4914 at 3:09 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I work in South Carolina as a state university librarian (not in Greenville) but I'm on vacation in upstate NY. I just looked for resources for senior housing in Greenville County, SC, but kept hitting dead pages. South Carolina is one of the most messed up states, in case you didn't know that.

If your mother and stepfather were legally married she is entitled to collect from his Social Security retirement. If she has worked extensively hers might be more, she can only collect one or the other. SSI is for disabled very low income people who are not eligible for either Social Security retirement income or the Social Security Disability that people collect if they become too disabled to work but have worked for a long time.

Federally subsidized senior housing is available in a lot of places, there should be something in the Greenville area. Rent is based on income. For instance, a friend of mine lives in such housing in Texas, she gets about 1,000/month from Social Security and pays about 250/month rent and has a very nice apartment. I'll keep trying to figure out what agency handles that there, and it sounds like the best solution unless your mother wants to come live with or near you. But, if she's not a Canadian citizen she will not, most likely, be eligible for similar services there.
posted by mareli at 3:19 PM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Found this link. And this.
posted by mareli at 3:23 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

It sounds like there are practical questions and emotional questions at work here. Let's separate them at first.

I respect you feeling bad that your mom is in the middle, but she really has to be - it's her life. When you get back, can you set up a call with her and ask:

"If money wasn't a question, what is your ideal scenario? What would you be OK with? What are any absolute deal breakers?"

Push for an ideal scenario to be stated - she might feel like she's a burden, and shouldn't voice her dreams. Let her know her dreams are worth listening to even if they turn out impossible.

Once you have that outlined, you can know what each scenario would take, that will point you in the right directions for research. That's going to require her sharing some more of her financial information, it sounds like. You mentioned already starting some research, and I think that'd be a great way for you to help right now.

Send an email to your mom, sister, and BIL. Outline what you've discussed, what you're going to put together, and a deadline on those answers. I realize that sounds like a work email, and that's the tone we're going for. Right now, ignore your sister's (super mean) message, we'll get back to that.

Keep the group updated as you go and have investigated the possible scenarios and any financial resources your mother is applicable for. In a few weeks, the team should have an idea of:

+ Is mom's dream scenario possible? What gaps are there to make them happen - is there any way to fill those gaps in from the family?
+ If not, are the compromise scenarios possible? How can everyone help make the raw edges smoother?
+ Are we still at worst case scenario having to be our only option? Is there anything anyone can do to make that just a bit easier? Maybe your mom has to give up her cat, but there's someone nearby who can adopt it and offer 'visitation'?

At this point, hopefully everyone has at least felt heard, even if their ideal isn't feasible. And a concrete plan is in place, so the work ahead doesn't have unknown stress on the top of it.

Ok, let's bring back the emotion piece. Ideally, this "dream/compromise/heckno" build-out also involves those of your sister and her family. I realize that might be difficult for you to help them put together right now. Or ever, given your mention of their drama. Upthread I hear some people mentioning how mean it is (it's super mean!) and also how much stress your sister is under (a lot!). In this kind of situation, I like to play a game called Worst Explanation, Best Explanation.

Worst Explanation: Your sister and her BIL are hurtful people who feel like they've thrown money into a bottomless pit and just want to be done with it. They're willing to cut you off from your nieces (!) if they don't get their way. They have bad boundaries, and honestly might not be a great place for your mom if there's anything else that could possibly work. They're refusing to give you the information you need, then demanding answers from you. No help you give is enough. They feel it's unfair they're spending more, when they actually just have more than you to spend.

Best Explanation: Your sister and her BIL are under a lot of strain. Your sister feels torn down keeping care of her family and mom and husband, and now she's going to give up her home and change her day-to-day and is frustrated that a cat is causing friction in this enormous gift. She's jealous that you're living in another country with no kids and a wonderful marriage and haven't been in the muck dealing with your dad's death and your mom's grief and your mom's needs. The situation has pushed her to the end of her rope, and she's lashing out in pain. "If you can't help me take care of our mom, you don't deserve to be called family", is a painful message and she'll regret it later but right now it's all she can scream into the void.

Definitely there's not an explanation where what she said was OK. So, seperate from a group email about plans, I'd get in touch with her directly:

"Hey sis. This is a really hard situation. You've been doing so much for Mom. (check on best.) I want to do what I can to help, and I understand if you feel like it hasn't been enough. (check on best.) But I'm really hurt by your message and love my nieces. (check on worst.) While we're handling this I want to work on our relationship too, but this degree of rudeness isn't ok to me and if it continues, we'll need to keep our communication to only helping mom. (check on worst.)" Boundaries are set, compassion offered, and maybe there's a more lighthearted text you can send after - like a mutual fond memory from childhood.

If she spills some pain, be there to listen. Maybe this is a really wonderful opportunity to reconnect as siblings and help each other process the changes in your family and your own lives.

If she continues to be rude, ignore it, and keep updates to the group situation where your mom is part of the process. After she's settled, you can decide what kind of relationship you want with your sister longterm, and it's OK if that's at a huge distance - even if you're still close to your mom while she lives there, and even if she's "doing more" on a day-to-day level for your mom then you are. She has actually taken on more, and that's worth your gratitude and compassion. That doesn't mean your a bad daughter or that you own more than you can give. You're a good person who loves your family and wants to do what she can - don't let someone guilt you into thinking differently.

Best of luck. This is a really really hard situation on everyone. Don't forget your own oxygen mask.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 3:25 PM on July 10, 2018 [35 favorites]

Your mother can live for up to six months at a time in Canada (with purchased health insurance), longer if you get her the parent super-visa. Would it give everyone some breathing room if she lived with you for a while? Disregard if this will negatively affect YOUR marriage, or your relationship with your mother.
posted by saucysault at 3:51 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Agree that your sister has been under a lot of strain, probably more than you realize. However, that is not a license to treat you or anybody else like crap and I would start by telling her that. Tell her that you simply will not engage with abusive behaviour and that if you get any more texts like the one she describes you will block her number for a week. Then do it, repeat as necessary, and do not respond to anything disrespectful after that.

Then, call your mom and discuss what she wants to do, and be honest and up front about the ways you can and can't help. It's a shame she's stuck in a difficult situation but she needs to deal with it because, as pointed out above, it's her life. Any solution that denies her agency fundamentally unfair to everyone and moreover, is not likely to work.
posted by rpfields at 4:23 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm only going to address this part because I'm afraid I wouldn't be much help with the other, more important parts:

She is able-bodied. She would like to work if she can but she doesn't know who would hire a 65-year-old medical admin.

My mom is 65+, a retired social worker, and works at her local big chain pharmacy location as a clerk/stock-person. She is her 30-year-old boss's favorite employee because she's so reliable and responsible and she loves it because she can talk to everyone in town. You never know.
posted by lampoil at 6:25 PM on July 10, 2018 [21 favorites]

I agree that she probably should pursue her husband's benefit. If he had a longer work history or a higher salary his benefit is probably larger. Keep in mind that this can take time - my deceased father's wife had to make an appointment with Social Security and take a death certificate to her appointment. The appointment was 6 weeks after she called them, so there may be a delay for your mom.)

Also, there are very specific penalties for people who collect Social Security who also want to work for pay. I know my dad stopped working as a consultant after he started collecting SS because after the first few thousand dollars he was paying much higher taxes on his earned income, and it pissed him off that he was penalized for working. I don't know what the guidelines are now, but she should check before she starts to depend on income from a part time (or full time) job.

This is also why many retirees work under the table.
posted by citygirl at 8:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

On top of the suggestions others have made about your mom working (namely, she doesn't have to work specifically in her old field and if she wants to work she should actively be looking), I was also wondering what her relationship is with your sister and BIL and whether she's been doing anything to help them out at all. Sometimes taking in an older relative can be a truly good deal for everyone - they get a place to stay and company, and they help with housework and taking care of the kids. Living near your mom means your sister has been doing much more for her than you have, but it also means she could potentially have benefited from your mom's help during this time.

Has this been the case? Has your mom been pulling her weight? I know it sounds weird to talk about it in those terms, especially since until recently she was caretaking for your father. But at the same time, 65 is not quite elderly these days. If taking care of her places a burden on both her daughters to the point where people are struggling to carry it, and if she is able to help, then she needs to.

At the same time, she won't be able to forever. As you figure out what to do now you also need to plan for a future where her physical or mental health do start failing. How will she or her family afford the medical treatment or caretaking she needs then? (Your sister will probably be saving for or dealing with college payments during this time, which is an additional stressor.) As hard as things are now they might be much harder in the future, and you, your sister and your mom need to do whatever you can to plan ahead and prepare for it.

Apologies if I've made assumptions that are off, and if this answer sounds insensitive. It's not a great world where a 65-year old still has to worry about contributing enough.
posted by trig at 9:16 PM on July 10, 2018

At first glance I'd encourage your mother to get rid of the cat (perhaps you can adopt it) and move in with your sister and BIL, but after hearing about their abusive behavior I wonder how safe your mother will be with them.

Unfortunately you need to help your mother get out of that environment.
posted by JamesBay at 9:28 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Something doesn’t add up here. I’m not sure why they’re asking you to send money. Are you supposed to send the money directly to them? This seems like potential elder abuse, given that you said that your mother is possibly crying as well. I don’t know how much your mother is getting in Social Security income, but if she worked as a medical admin, she should be capable of understanding this stuff and getting her own benefits. That is why I suspect something abusive. There’s no reason why this should all be so mysterious and why your mother shouldn’t be in charge of this.

It’s also bizarre that it all of a sudden is some kind of emergency, there’s no way they’re going to sell the condo in the next two days. Additionally, frankly, your mother has rights as a tenant. Rent in the area of the country where your mother lives is not that high. It’s affordable on your average Social Security income. I’m sure she could find a reasonably priced apartment if given a reasonable amount of time to do so.

Something about this is incredibly fishy, to the point that I would actually strongly consider flying to see your mother and make sure that she’s OK and well taken care of, as well as get copies of her paperwork, get her Social Security and order, and similar.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:06 PM on July 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

Phew. Wow. I read this earlier today and have been following the answers, hoping someone would come up with the perfect solution (and there are a lot of good comments), and I just re-read the question.

I started a comment about possible ways to defuse the emotional situation by listening to your sister, under the impression that she must be feeling quite desperate to lash out like that, and that by really understanding more, and letting her feel heard, some of the emotional intensity would dial down to the point that you guys could productively troubleshoot together.

But you say that this isn't the first time she's sent a text message like that, and you say she's probably been giving your mom an earful to the point that she's likely crying. So that tips me from a "wow, sis, what's really going on with you? It seems like you must be under a lot of pressure??" approach to more of a boundary-setting gray rock approach.

But then I walk around my living room and can't figure out (a) how you get around having a bunch of conversations with your sister, and (b) how to engage with your sister when she's lashing out at you like that (aside from setting boundaries). The situation sounds both high intensity and hard to understand, so I also feel like something else is going on here. Do you think maybe her husband lost his job and that they're in danger of losing the house or something?

Anyway. I'm not sure this comment is at all helpful, but here are just a quick smattering of thoughts:
- The affordable housing programs where I live are a sh*tshow with thousands of applicants per unit and multi-year wait times. It's possible that she has access to a good option, but I would assume that this won't be easy.
- My mom is older than yours, working full-time, on the verge of applying for a different job, and looking into an entrepreneurial side gig. It's easier for her because she has a lot of momentum built up, but I'd guess that your mom can earn a lot more than the $2400/year you can send. (Or do both.)
- Maybe consider a one-time payment that's bigger than whatever you can commit to monthly? I mean, just getting your mom moved out of the condo is weeks of effort and lots of heavy furniture lifting, or like $500 paid to movers.
- Some comments are really harsh on you, and I couldn't disagree with those more; you sounds conscientious and like you're trying to help. But there's a sliiight piece of detachment there, like "$200 is all I can do, and that's all," which your sister doesn't have the luxury of having -- she's not going to evict your mom to be homeless; she's not going to make your mom move her own mattress from one house to the other. There's a lot that you can't physically help with because you aren't around and to whatever extent you can send money to let them hire movers (and pay someone else to deal with whatever next month's thing is), the better.
- Have you tried to brainstorm ways to increase your income? Could you boost your hours to full time? Just as your sister is giving up a bedroom, could you rent out part of your flat and send that money in support? Anyway, i'm sure you've already done your own brainstorming.

Anyway, this is not easy, and I really wish you the best.
posted by salvia at 12:06 AM on July 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

She never quite clarifies what is going on with her finances and I think we all need to know so as to move forward.

Absolutely. This is imperative. The social assistance programs will need this information, too. I honestly feel this needs to be the first priority, finding out your mom's exact expenses and income. This won't get better with so many assumptions being made by everyone.
posted by girlmightlive at 5:11 AM on July 11, 2018 [9 favorites]

Your sister and her husband have offered the perfect solution: your mother can move in with them, but without her cat. This to me sounds at once generous and reasonable. If your mother cannot support herself, then she has to compromise on some of the things that are important to her.

I mean... refusing to let the cat go feels... I don't know... so unreasonable, I'd personally just wash my hands of the whole situation.
posted by Kwadeng at 7:33 AM on July 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fellow Canadian who immigrated from the US. If you wanted to sponsor your mother for permanent residency be aware that for the first 2 years once permanent residency was granted, any provincial or federal supports that you mother takes advantage of, you would be financially responsible for.

It's been more than a decade since I got my PR, but essentially one can come in on a 6-month visitor Visa, and then apply for immigration via family sponsor ship, and not have to leave the country. More specifically, the applicant can't actually leave the country (well, you can, but then your sponsorship application is immediately ended by your action upon leaving Canada).

So in theory you could look into her immigrating to Canada, however it would likely be 1.5-2 years of PR application where she would be fully supported by you, followed by two years of also being supported by you. Also, CPP will obviously not be available for her, so that may severly limit any survival income at that point. But if you were looking to have her live in your home with your spouse and you, this should be mostly just a matter of paperwork and waiting.

If you're not looking to have her live with your family for 4+ years, than immigration to Canada probably isn't the best route.
posted by nobeagle at 8:00 AM on July 11, 2018

Response by poster: Update: I have heard from my mom, who informed us that she has found--with the aid of my sister, I'm guessing--an apartment nearby going for $815 USD/mo. She is expected to move by August 29th as my BIL has already booked contractors to begin renovations on the condo September 1st. I have asked what is included (water, but not electric), is she sure she can afford this, I just want her to be happy, and are there any other fees I should know about. There is a hefty pet deposit ($300) but everything seems reasonable.

Communications broke down with my BIL as he would not respond to any questions I had about long term planning, about my looking into social assistance for her. He just repeating that "he's done." As far as I can tell, he is not responding to any attempts at contact via email now. (I do not have his cell phone number and they do not have a landline. My sister is not interested in discussing this with me either.)

Our plan is to schedule a conference call with my mother this Saturday, ask her directly about her finances, what the limit of what we can do to help financially, how to help her gain independence where she does not need to rely on me or my sister, and perhaps finding her a financial advisor to help manage her income. I am still hoping to get some sort of financial assistance for her though a lot of the info I have found and you nice folks have provided.
posted by Kitteh at 8:26 AM on July 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

If she isn't willing to be forthcoming about her finances (including providing documentation to you) then sending her money is just a black hole with no guarantee of actually helping her. Unless she is cognitively impaired the questions about long-term planning should go to her, not you BIL. If she is cognitively impaired you should be looking into a (non-family member) guardian for her. It really sucks to see parents make poor choices, but insulating them from the consequences of their choices is also not doing them any favours. The financial planner is a great idea. Look after yourself, she won't be a safety net for you, obviously. Good luck in this crappy situation.
posted by saucysault at 8:45 AM on July 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

It’s great that she found an apartment. Having looked at the prices for apartments in that area and obviously not being an expert, that sounds reasonable. There are a ton of apartments for that price in the area, which is why I was confused about the level of anxiety and aggression from your sister and brother-in-law.

I agree with saucysalt about everything. You really can’t give her money or make any real effort at assisting her if you don’t know basic information like her income, bills that must be paid (rent and car), etc. without that we’re all really just guessing.

Also, frankly, to large extent if much of her money problems are due to things like consumer debt, you really don’t want to be throwing money at paying those when there may be a better option like consolidation or bankruptcy. So I would condition any financial assistance on an accounting of exactly where everything is going and how much. And I completely agree that you need to be having this conversation with her, not your sister or brother-in-law.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:04 AM on July 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Additionally, financial planners are, in my experience, more relevant when you have things like investments to deal with. Instead, there may be some nonprofit credit counseling services available for her for free.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:05 AM on July 11, 2018

Her local Agency on Aging may also have resources for budgeting and financial planning.

It sounds like you're in that weird place where parental authority and parental decline are battling, and you're not sure when to assert authority over her vs. trusting her to deal with it on her own. Certainly trust your judgment, but I just want to flag that as a totally normal place to be right now, and to note that it may need to shift over the next few years/decades. It may be helpful to try to mentally prepare for that a bit.
posted by lazuli at 5:31 PM on July 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Good luck -- sounds like that's a good solution! I think your sister was totally wrong in the text (as is your BIL). I guess what they've mean is that they've not just penny pinched, they've made huge sacrifices for the situation and there's not a lot of evidence in this question that you've done the same (i.e., get a second job to help out, travelled there extensively, made the kind of huge efforts to make things work that parents do to support their children, though I know this is the other way around.) You did take a vacation, even a modest one, and though I'm sure you needed it, it probably didn't come across that way to your sister and BIL.

Your BIL might do well, but they have one person financially supporting 5 people (assuming 2 kids), and you have 2 people supporting 2.

I'm not judging, but I've seen this in my own family, and a lot of estrangement stemmed out of the fact that one family member simply didn't understand the sacrifice the others had on a daily basis to make things work. This is particularly true if they have kids already, which is already so tough to do with tight finances. (And your BIL doesn't sound like the nicest person, but it's hard if he feels like he's making more sacrifices than you and it's not his mother.)

Totally understand if you disregard this -- I always get annoyed when people turn around my questions on me, and I usually ignore them, to my detriment :).
posted by heavenknows at 7:44 PM on July 11, 2018

Response by poster: I learned from a straight question last night about how much my mother receives in SS from both her own and my deceased stepfather. It's much more than I expected, which was good, but now I've moved onto worried again as I am not sure where the remainder of her money is going aside from rent, regardless of where she has been living and will live. I am trying to be clear and open with her that I am not judging her as to any debts or problems she may have; we just want to help to make sure she can be autonomous and self-sufficient until the time comes she isn't anymore.

I am choosing to focus right now on getting this sorted before I tackle anything with my sister and BIL and our relationship. I am still overthinking and smarting from the nasty text, and remembering that this isn't the first time that she has done this to me. I just overlook it as her life is obviously different from mine, but years of this behaviour is wearing me down, despite the most recent situation. We will have to work something out because of my mom, but right now I just want to get Mom taken care of.

Again, I thank you all for the thoughtful answers and perspectives you have provided.
posted by Kitteh at 5:07 AM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I thought about your question a lot, since I am in a similar situation, living in a different country from an elderly parent.

I think the conference call is a good first step, but I'm wondering if it would be possible to physically visit your mother prior to the scheduled move. The first priority would be to assess your mother's health and be on the lookout for signs of dementia or Alzheimer's. She is at the age where cognitive decline is a real risk.

Help her pack her possessions and organize her important papers. This would also be a good chance to assess her financial situation, instead of relying on what you are being told. Review her bills and bank statements. Get her credit reports, too, to see if there are any loans or credit cards in her name she might not have mentioned or possibly could have been opened without her knowledge. When a colleague went to help his mother get started on her move to an assisted living facility, and started by reviewing her finances, he discovered she'd signed up for various expensive and unnecessary services, home repairs, etc. It took effort and time for him and his siblings to extricate their mother from various predatory scams, and their mother was still out five figures when all was said and done.

Help your mother fill out forms to apply for any assistance she is entitled to, make phone calls, go wait in government offices with her if needed. As my mother got older, she needed help dealing with bureaucracy. This is also the kind of help that would be difficult for your sister to provide - it's no fun to wait for hours in government offices with children in tow.

On preview: Your update is very positive, and you seem to be on the right track. Good luck!
posted by needled at 5:09 AM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

That update sounds good. I think you're smart to start by focusing on her. I think it might also help the situation with them as well? They sound fed up (and "done") with dealing with this, so the more that you can work directly with her, the better. Even phone calls to explain things and keep you in the loop are another task that at least your BIL sounds like he wants to not do for awhile.

To the extent you can, I'd do some of the things that indisputably need done, like if at all possible helping your mom move. I'm concerned that you could do a lot of helpful things, like emotional labor in phone conversations, researching options to get her more assistance, etc., and (especially if those options don't bear fruit), they won't see it and will still feel like all the burden is falling on them. Take this housing thing. You were doing stuff, trying to talk to them, trying to research online, but then apparently your sister had found apartments on Craigslist and driven your mom around to see them, etc etc, all the stuff necessary to actually find a new place to live. You were trying to help; I'm totally not blaming you or anything; but from your sister's perspective, I think it could look like she ended up doing all the core stuff that needed done. That's why I'm thinking that if you take on the task of helping your mom move -- setting up a time for movers to come, helping your mom pack and unpack, and basically taking it off your sister's plate -- and doing so without any "look at me being so good and helping" vibe (which I don't get the feeling that you'd do, but I just have to say this because it really rubs the local folks who are always helping the wrong way) -- it could give them a break to maybe get their composure back.

I don't know what is up with them. Your sister's behavior is totally unacceptable, and you say she's done that before, and it also seems possible that it's driven by your BIL somehow. (E.g., if he's so at the end of his rope, maybe your sister has fears like she has to get your mom's situation sorted or else she'll end up divorced and both she and your mom will end up homeless.) I think you being there could shed some light for you on all this (though you could also mostly avoid them -- I probably would, just because they seem so out of sorts and uninterested in communicating). But yeah, if you focus on what's going on with your mom, which is their stated issue anyway, it can only help.
posted by salvia at 6:21 AM on July 13, 2018

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