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Dear Christine, Alarmed Aunt in Auburn Hills

  • Posted on March 27, 2017 at 9:20 am

Dear Christine,

About 15 years ago my sister, now 72, started distancing herself from members of her family. First, her twin sons, now grown men with families, then our father. More recently me, when 3 years ago I found her sons and sent her a photo of her grandson. I haven’t seen her since. She showed up on the doorstep of her older son’s house 15 years ago and moved into his back room in a very small house. She wouldn’t tell anyone why she left her own house. She has stopped driving, wakes up and goes to bed early, and watches TV and seems to enjoy that, according to my nephew. Pretty much no life for someone who used to live a very active social life.

Her sons have moved back to the area and want some answers. She abandoned them to their fathers’ care when they were just teenagers, and now in their midthirties, they are suffering from that rejection.

The twins have had no luck getting her to answer the phone or the door. The older son, by her first husband, told the wife of one of the twins that she doesn’t want to see them.

I know right before she started changing that she was dating a married man. I assume that didn’t go well. My sister is also smart, a MENSA member. Our mother passed around the same time this started and our father moved to Florida and married again fairly quickly. Two questions: How can the twins get resolution when she won’t speak to them? Is there anything I can do to get my sister some mental health care?

Alarmed Aunt in Auburn Hills

Dear Alarmed Aunt,

Let’s see if I get the family configuration here. Your parents had two children: You and your sister, age 72 and smart. Your sister was married twice. She had her elder son with her first husband and then twin sons with her second husband. She abandoned her sons to their fathers’ care when they were teens. She is no longer married, but was dating someone who was married. She began to change and inexplicably moved in with her oldest son. Your mother died around this time and your father then moved to Florida and remarried. Your sister has cut off her contact with the twins and your father and you, causing pain and confusion all around.

If that is true, your sister has a safe home and family taking care of her. As far as you know, your sister is sane and able to make decisions about her life and her care, probably assisted by her oldest son and his wife. She chooses to have no contact with other family members. If that is the case there is very little you can do. She has the right to live where she wants and associate with those she prefers and dissociate from those she prefers not to see. She doesn’t owe anyone any explanations, though it would be helpful to all involved if you understood what she is thinking and why these changes occurred.

What causes the pain and turmoil is that you don’t know is the “why” behind her behaviors and decisions. Are you in touch with her oldest son? He would have direct information about her physical and mental health, her finances and ability to take care of herself and whether or not she might be experiencing cognitive decline from normal aging or from other causes (alcohol intake, drugs, lack of nutrition, diabetes, dementia, small strokes, called TIAs) or any major health problems. He would know if she is under the care of doctor, a general practitioner or a geriatric specialist. You don’t know if she knows or cares that her sons are in emotional turmoil from her apparent rejection of them for the last 15 to 20 years. So, I join you in wondering what in the heck is going on and who has your sister become.

If your sister won’t respond to the twins or you, the next logical person to contact is her eldest son and his wife. What is your relationship with them? Are they open to talking to you or his brothers about this situation? Are they able and willing to shed some light on what is going on emotionally, physically, financially and socially with your sister? Do they agree that there is something out of character for your sister going on, like cognitive decline, dementia or TIAs? Have they accompanied her to a doctor appointment? Do they know if your sister might be depressed? Is she open to family, medical or psychiatric intervention?

There’s very little you can do at this point. If your sister lived alone, you could request the police do a wellness check. I would start by contacting the son she’s living with. If he and/or his family will help you understand any of what is going on, that would be helpful. If they are obstructive, then you are at a dead end. If you believe that her son may be abusing her, then call Adult Protective Services in the city where they live and they will investigate the case. Your sister has the right to do and see and interact , or not, with whomever she chooses. As long as she is not a danger to herself or others, there is no legal reason you may interfere and insist she get a mental health evaluation or other medical services. Meanwhile, send her your thoughts of love and wish her peace.

If you need to, lean on other family members, such as your other nephews, and friends and spiritual or psychological guides. Psychotherapy might be helpful to figure out how to let go of that which you cannot change and to not take personally the actions of someone who has changed drastically from the sister you grew up with/mother who birthed them. It hurts and it’s very hard to watch from a distance and feel helpless. Take care of you and encourage your nephews to take care of themselves and each other. Take care of those whom you love and who are able to respond. Take care and keep me posted. Christine Cantrell, PhD