Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Untreated Bipolar Sister is Brainwashing Our Elderly Mother”

My sister is undiagnosed bipolar with incredible rage especially toward me. She moved in with my mother one year before my father passed away. Eight years later the house is full of stuff she hoards. I believe her “self-therapy” is shopping. If Dollar General has lamps marked down to $2, then she will buy all of them because it is a good buy and one day she might need them.

The real problem is she has positioned herself as my mother’s sole caregiver. She takes over-the-top good physical care. However, if Mother does not agree to something, E becomes enraged, gets in her face, teeth gritting until Mother gives up. My sister is essentially a bully. She is the same with me but on a different level and has threatened physical harm several times to the point I cannot see my mother. In other words, I have to stay away because Mother ends up feeling she has to choose. I have called the police but did not file a report because Morher was scared they would put my sister in jail. At 54, E has no children, has no husband, and has never bought a car, a house, etc.; My mother is her world and she has given up her life by choice to be Mother’s caregiver.

Now Mother has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I believe the stress of living with E has exacerbated the disease and she will decline more quickly. She chooses to stay with E because she wants to remain as independent as she can as long as possible, and that means being home and having E help care for her. Lately, she says things that E has brainwashed her to believe. E has Mother convinced that I want her in jail and mother in a nursing home and that I want to take all the money. E hates me because I went to college, have a job, and have a husband and four children. She tells me she hates me.

Any advice? I would like to get a mediator to intervene and make E get treatment. (She doesn’t believe in medicine at all. And I am the devil for taking Wellbutrin.) At this rate, my mother and I do not have a relationship because E is paranoid, delusional, and frantic. She sleeps very little and is very anxious. She is a time bomb. — Worried for Mom

This is a really sad situation, and I’m sorry that it has left you with no relationship with your mother at the moment. This is not my area of expertise by any means, and I would advise you to seek the guidance of a family attorney. You’ll want to figure out — either before you confer with an attorney or with his or her help — what your goals are, and what the order of their priority is. I would imagine that goals include: obtaining a Power of Attorney (if one hasn’t been granted yet); getting your mother better care (which could mean improving the management of E’s mental health and/or hiring an outside caregiver to supplement E’s “help” or moving your mother into a home where assistance is provide); improving your relationship with your mother; improving your relationship with your sister; helping your mother plan her estate.

You say E hates you, so talking with her about your concerns may not be possible or practical, but if it is, or if there’s anyone you both trust besides your mother (your spouse, another family member, a close friend of your mother’s), who can speak on your behalf about your concern for your mother’s (and your sister’s) well-being, enlist this person’s help. Explain that you are worried that your mother’s condition has advanced to a point that she needs additional help — that her needs are too great for only one person to meet them. If money allows — and this is where talking to a family attorney will be helpful — you would like for a part-time caregiver to be hired to supplement E’s caregiving and provide some relief in her schedule so that she can preserve some energy for the road ahead. If there’s no way to get this message across to E in a way that she embraces, you’ll need the help of a lawyer.

You’ve got a lot on your plate, and you’re essentially dealing with two close family members who likely are not in their “right minds.” That your mother is so easily brainwashed by your sister to the point that you have zero relationship with her anymore suggests that her mental capabilities have been weakened or threatened, either by mental illness, an age-related illness, or something else. This isn’t your fault, and it’s not really their fault either. I know it’s agonizing, but you have to try not to take any of this personally. You may find support with an organization called NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), which has a section on their website ffor family members and a helpline you can call for additional support.

Unfortunately, there may not be much you can do to help your mother or your sister. You need to prepare yourself for that and take whatever steps are necessary to protect and care for yourself, your spouse, and your four kids. My grandfather was in a very similar position to yours, and though I was too young to understand the situation at the time, and to this day I don’t know all the details, I have to imagine that he (and my grandmother) felt a similar sense of helplessness. My understanding was that they did all the could, short of devoting their entire lives to the matter, and while not everyone’s part of the family story ended happily, my grandfather (who was essentially in your role) raised his four children, enjoyed his six grandchildren, and even met a great-grandchild before he died, peacefully, shortly after his 90th birthday, with fond memories of the mother and sister he couldn’t manage to save from themselves and at least not noticeably scarred by however those relationships may have affected him.

I say all this as a reminder that you are not alone in what you’re going through, and that, as painful as it may be, it’s only a part of your story. It’s not fair that your sister resents you for all you have — a college education, a spouse, four kids — but you did get dealt the better hand, and the best you can do is appreciate all your blessings and forgive your sister for the limitations she can’t help and the effect those limitations have had on your relationship with her and your mother.


Follow along on Facebook, and Instagram.

If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.

14 comments… add one
  • Avatar photo

    becboo84 June 28, 2018, 2:10 pm

    I generally agree with Wendy’s advice, but I must address the LW’s claim that her sister has “undiagnosed bipolar.” Since the LW doesn’t identify herself as a mental health professional or a MD, that is a rather inappropriate claim to make. I think many times “scary” diagnoses are thrown around to explain a person’s behavior or to garner sympathy for the person making the claim (the LW in this case), but all that does is further stigmatize them and minimize the actual difficulties many individuals with bipolar and other serious mental health issues face.

    Reply Link
    • Rava June 29, 2018, 4:09 am

      My sister-in-law has ‘undiagnosed borderline syndrome’. It’s not something we’re throwing around, it’s what she herself says after self-diagnosing via the internet and not getting a coherent diagnosis from her doctor (because she doesn’t follow through on follow-up doctor’s appointments). Maybe the LW’s sister is in a same situation, where the LW can only repeat what she’s been told.

      Reply Link
  • carolann June 28, 2018, 2:14 pm

    I am not sure how you go about it, but I think the Department Of Human Resources for her State may have some help or be able to provide a geriatric social worker to investigate and make sure Mom isn’t the victim of elder abuse.
    I don’t know if LW has the money for an attorney or not, but she could contact legal aid and ask them for suggestions. I would call DHR first.
    As far as the sisters mental illness, LW can only assume what the sister is suffering from, it sounds a bit more than bi polar to me, but there are several types and she may have more than one illness. She should see a professional, but you can’t make her. If a social worker gets involved maybe that would force the issue a bit.

    Reply Link
    • LisforLeslie June 29, 2018, 5:39 am

      Yes, your locale likely has an elder care office that can help with resources and also be put on alert for elder abuse. If there is financial abuse, that would likely qualify. Ultimately I think you are going to have to do some combination of geriatric medical specialist, parkinson’s specialist and attorney to make sure your mom gets the care she needs before she’s too frail to demand it herself.

      Reply Link
  • carolann June 28, 2018, 2:18 pm

    I agree with @becboo84 LW should leave diagnosing to the pros. Bi polar gets thrown around a lot these days.

    Reply Link
  • bondbabe June 28, 2018, 3:15 pm

    This might be a helpful link for the elder care side of the issue:


    Reply Link
  • Essie June 28, 2018, 3:21 pm

    LW, treat the cause of your sister’s behavior as irrelevant for the moment. The only thing that matters is whether your mother is safe and receiving proper care. Frankly, if the situation is as you describe, I don’t see how she could be. Whatever is going on with your sister, I, personally, wouldn’t trust her to be making decisions about your mother’s care on her own.

    Talk to a lawyer who specializes in eldercare issues ASAP. Find out what your legal options are for intervening. Find out how it’s likely to play out if you contact your local social services agency and request an evaluation. When you know what your options are, talk to your husband about what you’re willing and able to take on.

    Reply Link
  • RedBlue June 28, 2018, 3:58 pm

    If there are protective services for adults and seniors in your area, you should call them. Stick with the facts, though and leave your unqualified medical opinions to your peels, though, because those kinds of thinkpge tend to make a person look like a crank.

    Reply Link
  • Salli June 28, 2018, 4:26 pm

    Please call adult protective services. Emotional and verbal abuse are abuse, and very likely to become physical as your mother’s needs increase and she becomes more fragile and needy.

    Reply Link
  • Ruby Tuesday June 28, 2018, 6:12 pm

    As a disability rights attorney with a background in both involuntary psychiatric commitments and abuse/neglect claims, the best (and likely only) way to protect your mother from your sister requires that you report your sister’s abusive behavior to the proper authorities. Please note that your state may have different laws or requirements and that my advice is only for informational purposes and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.

    Both federal and state law protect people with disabilities from hospitalization or treatment against their will. Unless your sister meets your state’s criteria for involuntary psychiatric treatment, your sister has the legal capacity to make her own decisions regarding treatment and the state cannot force your sister into treatment. Any involuntary interventions longer than your state’s emergency evaluation period, usually no more than 48-72 hours, require a court to issue a civil commitment order. A court order is required for both inpatient and outpatient commitment.

    Just as the state cannot force your sister to take medication against your will, your mother retains the right to make decisions about her care unless a court orders that she lacks legal capacity. As long as she retains legal capacity under the law, your mother is free to make her own decisions, even if those decisions may not be in her best interest. While a mediator could facilitate a discussion between you and your mother, mediators do not have the authority to make binding decisions regarding her care.

    As a former mandated reporter, if you had contacted me or the legal aid organization about your mother, the information you provided her would trigger the requirement in my state to report the abuse of your mother by your sister to Adult Protective Services or the Police.

    If you feel that your sister is a danger to your mother or that your sister is commiting elder abuse, you need to report your sister if you want to protect your mother from further abuse.

    If you think your sister is an imminent threat, report the abuse to the police. Otherwise, your first step should be to file a report with the local Adult Protective Services agency. I then recommend you contact your state’s Department of Aging to file a report and to get more information and resources on how to protect your mother. It is in your mother’s best interest for you to report your sister to multiple state agencies to ensure that your report does not slip through the cracks.

    Because your mother likely meets the criteria for disability due to her Parkinson’s diagnosis, I also suggest you contact your state’s Protection and Advocacy agency. Under federal law, the P&As provide free legal assistance for people with disabilities and have a unique authority to protect/intervene on their behalf. Further, because most P&A’s are mandated reporters, the agency can likely assist you in filing an elder abuse report or with referrals to agencies and organizations. The National Disability Rights Network provides the contact information for all states here: http://www.ndrn.org/ndrn-member-agencies.html.

    Reply Link
    • Avatar photo

      Dear Wendy June 28, 2018, 7:48 pm

      This is great info and I imagine will be very helpful – thank you!

      Reply Link
      • Ruby Tuesday June 28, 2018, 8:08 pm

        Happy to help!

      • Ruby Tuesday June 29, 2018, 1:11 pm

        DW, I’m also happy to help if you have any questions with disability rights or other civil rights/government issues. I can’t provide real legal advice for some obvious reasons, but I’m always happy to help steer a letter writer in the correct direction!

        I always recommend that people with disabilities and their families who need legal assistance start by finding their state’s Protection and Advocacy agency through the NDRN website. With a few exceptions, the P&As are all independent, non-profit organizations that receive federal funding to provide free legal assistance to people with disabilities. If the agency can’t assist, they should have a list of referrals available to organizations in the area that do.

    • LisforLeslie June 29, 2018, 5:41 am

      +1000 to Ruby T.

      Reply Link

Leave a Comment