Ask Amy: Successful sister ponders her family obligation

Dear Amy: My question is about family obligations — both financial and emotional. My sister and I are both in our 70s and retired.

She has made life choices that have left her alone and out of money with serious health issues. She has had multiple marriages that failed. She quit working at a young age (30s) due to health concerns.

I believe our mother supported her for years before (my mother’s) death in 2003. We live 1,000 miles apart.

She has children who live near her: one who has not had contact with her in a decade and one who helps only when she feels she has to.

I have been married for over 40 years; we both worked hard for decades and have a reasonable retirement that may or may not last as long as we live.

My sister has often expressed how she needs money, without actually asking for it. I have given her about $1,000 over this past year. I send cash gifts for holidays and birthdays, but I’m sure that is nowhere near what she needs.

She has recently asked me to exit her life due to “lack of support.”

She has never been a kind person.

I am looking for an objective answer as to what my support for her should be, if any. My last visit to see her was 10 years ago, and I have no desire to visit again.

She has a social worker and gets some government help but still lives independently in an apartment she can’t afford.

Her children have never asked me for money. The one who does help her out reluctantly is a high earner. The other one, not so much.

I wonder how other families handle these situations.

Any advice?

— Sorry Sister

Dear Sister: Other families handle this the way your family is: by wading through their confusion, guilt and sorrow — and by making choices they then doubt.

In short, most families react to messy situations in messy ways.

You are not obligated to help your sister — or anyone.

But do you donate to causes that help needy strangers? And do the recipients of this help need to prove that they are worthy in order to receive your generosity?

It might inspire you to put your sister in the category of someone who will never earn your help or (possibly) express gratitude for it. Will you help, anyway? It’s totally up to you.

If you do choose to help, you will feel better if you do so from a place of compassion versus obligation.

You should contact your sister’s daughter to ask for her perspective regarding her mother’s needs.

I think it’s likely that this unkind and needy woman raised a daughter who is extremely careful with her own boundaries, and she would likely advise you to do the same.

Dear Amy: Some relatives (who do not usually gather, except for reunions) are getting together for an almost weeklong time together.

Everyone has to fly to get there. A big house will be rented for the vacation.

I had originally wanted to go but, upon thinking and pondering this, it does not feel comfortable to me in my present state of mind.

I’m not sure why, but that’s how I feel.

The dates are in place, but nothing else has been decided.

How can I gently decline when I originally thought this a good/fun idea?

— Reluctant Traveler

Dear Reluctant: Before declining altogether, you should do your best to sort out your feelings.

I believe for many people, experiencing the personal and social dislocation of the pandemic has had a lingering aftereffect of a sort of free-floating anxiety about leaving home.

While it is extremely important for you to listen to your own instincts, it is also helpful to occasionally push through; sometimes showing up (even when you’re unsure) can lead to positive experiences.

If you do decide to decline — keep it simple. Just say, “I think this sounds like a really fun time. Thank you for putting it together. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it this year, but I hope everyone has a great time.”

Dear Amy: “Confused” was disenchanted with her marriage and contemplating a move with her minor daughter and retiring on “her” pension.

In your response, you forgot to issue your usual sage advice to consult a lawyer.

She might be shocked to discover that her pension may be considered a marital asset, divisible in a divorce.

— Concerned Reader

Dear Reader: Absolutely! Thank you.

(You can email Amy Dickinson at [email protected] or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

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