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damage control

The question

My 94-year-old mother moved in with my sister, a retired nurse, in mid-April. Now my sister won’t let anyone set foot in the house, except her and her daughter, due to COVID. My sister recently moved back to the city where my mother and I live, after 30 years away, during which time I happily looked after mom. But now I want to see my mum once a week and my sister says no, it’s too “stressful.” For her not for mom. I’ve been allowed to see her about half a dozen times. My sister helps her out to sit on the porch and back in when we’re finished. That’s the “too stressful” part. And, what am I going to do when it will be too cold for mum to sit out? Do I have any rights here?

The answer

Of the many difficult aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic – and there are so many, from the economic impact to the effect it’s had on everyone’s mental and physical health – surely among the most distressing are the new ways we’ve had to learn to interact with friends and family members, especially the older ones.

Example: I can’t hug my beloved, ultracute octogenarian mother right now.

On the one hand, I wish I could. On the other, I don’t want to kill her! There’s a teenager in my household “bubble.” He goes to school (halftime: the other half on Zoom). Lately, he sees his friends, too. I beg him, and them, to practice precautions, masks and physical distancing – but can only assume their efforts are sporadic and inconsistent, at best.

(Is it poor pandemic parenting to let him go out? Questionable COVID citizenship? I’m trying to balance his mental health with the risks of contracting the virus. For the first few months he was in lockdown with me and his mother, and it was lovely, a real bonding time. But at a certain point he said: “I’m having a great time with you guys. But if I don’t see my friends I’m going to go crazy.” I understood. Teenagers are pack animals. So I let him go out with his “crew.”)

So we’re very careful when it comes to interactions between him and my mother. One of the most awful, miserable aspects of this pernicious pandemic is not only that it kills seniors, it’s how they die.

Recently, my mother’s 90-year-old boyfriend died suddenly (of non-COVID related causes). Might sound odd, to some, to speak of a nonagenarian dying “suddenly.” But it was like that: one moment he’s chattily, merrily ticking along; the next being rushed to hospital.

And Mom wasn’t allowed to come in with him. He died alone – well, a nurse and doctor were in the room. But it’s not the same. You want to be surrounded by loved ones, at the last.

You don’t want a fate like that to befall your mother, I’m guessing.

Especially if it were somehow, whether directly or indirectly, your fault. You ask if you have “rights.” Most assuredly, as both her daughter and long-time caregiver, you do.

But the real question is: do you want to exercise them? Would you rather interact with her from afar, over the phone or on Zoom or whatnot, or as a picture on the mantelpiece you glance at from time to time when you visit your sister’s house?

Or maybe the really real question is: What does your mother want? In the midst of all this sibling squabbling and control-wresting, has anyone thought to ask her?

I don’t know how to say this without seeming insensitive; but there’s a chance that, at the age of 94, she might want to roll the dice vis-à-vis catching COVID, if it means getting a chance to be surrounded by people who love her, starting with you, as she almost certainly nears the end of her life-tenure.

(I know: some live to a hundred and beyond. But they’re the exceptions.)

Ask her what she wants. Then both of you abide by her wishes. She’s a grown woman, to say the least. Unless there are cognitive issues you haven’t mentioned, she should be allowed to make this kind of decision for herself.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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