Care and Feeding

My Sister Is Running Our Aging Parents Ragged

How do I get her to stop?

A mother hands her baby to its grandmother.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by maruco/iStock/Getty images Plus. 

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am one of five siblings. My family is very tight-knit and spends a lot of time together. My three older siblings have kids ranging from ages 14 to 26. I have a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old. My younger sister has a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. When my older nieces and nephews were younger, my parents, who were in their 40s and 50s at the time, were very active in their lives—constantly babysitting, taking them on outings, and getting down on the floor to play with them. My younger sister and I both waited to have children until we were in our late 30s, meaning our parents our now in their mid 70s. I’ve accepted that my parents can’t really have the same type of “hands-on” relationship with my kids that they had with their older grandchildren. They come to my kids’ games, recitals, and performances, and they play with them as much as they can, but I know it wears them out quickly, so I try to keep our visits short.

My younger sister, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge that our parents are getting older.

She often drops her kids off at their house to be babysat, despite the fact that my mom can barely lift the baby. My parents would never say anything because they really want to treat everyone equally (and I think they are in denial about aging). My siblings and I, as well as my nieces and nephews who are in their 20s, have all offered to babysit my sister’s kids but she only wants our parents to do it. It’s tough because my parents aren’t really typical “old people” but it’s clear to everyone that they’re slowing down. I’m worried about them, and I’m worried about my sister’s kids. How can I start the conversation that my parents are too old to be doing overnight babysitting without tearing the family apart?

—I’m the Only One Looking Out for Our Aging Parents

Dear ItOOLOfOAP,

You are not your sister’s—or your parents’—keeper. You cannot (and should not try to) force your sister to change her ways. Your parents can tell her if it’s too much for them—and honestly, I’m not sure it is. I am only sure that you think it is. You don’t mention any debilitating illnesses or other issues, only their age. And since they aren’t much older than I am, and I can not only easily pick up, rock in my arms—and dance around the room with—a baby, I can also “get down on the floor” (and back up again) to play with older-than-babies, and you note that your 70-something parents aren’t “typical ‘old people,’” I can’t figure out why you are so certain they can’t manage what your sister is asking of them. But maybe you’re right: maybe it is too hard for them. Maybe they are “in denial.” (Am I? I have more energy and stamina than some of my friends who are less than half my age—but I still know how old I am, and how many years I’m likely to have left. Your parents probably do too.) But whether they are as frail as you believe them to be or not, they are adults who are capable of saying no if they need to or choose to. You should proceed in a way that makes sense to you, where your kids are concerned, and you should also stay out of your sister’s business. Each to their own, OK? Holier than thou is not a good look for anybody.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. He snaps at them if they are too loud, for example. I often look at fathers that seem to plan and enjoy time with their kids and feel jealous: My husband will go if I plan it but does not enjoy it. I have been asking for all of this to change for years, and it has not, and I have come to believe that the current status quo is what it is going to be forever. Should I leave him?