This week: My fast-living sister has fallen into poverty

Pippa's sister, Suki, led a glamorous life with three husbands, lovers, stables, yachts, pools etc. Pippa and her husband were the poor relations but now the situation is reversed. Suki, at 60, is alone on income support, and Pippa, a nurse, and her husband are comfortably retired. Pippa feels strangely guilty. Should she offer her sister a monthly allowance which she could ill afford?

Virginia Ironside

The crucial word here is "guilty". No wonder Pippa precedes it with the word "strangely", for her guilty feelings are strange. Clearly her sister never felt "strangely guilty" about Pippa and her churchmouse husband when they were living in the tumble-down cottage with the outside loo or wherever they hung out for most of their impecunious lives. So why does Pippa feel guilty now?

There could be several reasons, and this one is a long shot, but I suspect that she was always jealous of her sister when they were children, that Suki was always the pretty one, the adults' darling, the one who captivated everyone with her pretty ways, her curly hair, her dimpled cheeks and her party frocks, while Pippa, now a nurse, was regarded as the "sensible" one. People who become carers are often children who were rather neglected when small; they enjoy caring because by being in a caring environment they pick up whiffs of care they never had, and it comforts them, no matter that the care is given by themselves. Could it be that Pippa is one of these people? Let me go further and say that I suspect that Pippa was so jealous of the glamorous Suki when she was small that she secretly wished her to suffer a terrible downfall. And now that Suki is actually on her uppers, a wretched 60-year-old who has been cast off by husbands and lovers alike like a used glove, who can barely afford a train fare to anywhere, it's as if Pippa's fantasies have come true. No wonder Pippa feels guilty. No wonder she feels like running to her aid and showering her with allowances and help, even though she isn't remotely responsible for her sister's demise. Her old, evil fantasies appear to have come true.

The other thing to question is whether her sister would welcome this assistance. On one level she would, but on another it smacks of patronage. Would she feel resentful depending on her sister? And immediately after Pippa had made the decision, would she, too, feel resentful, and would the prospect of this allowance going on for ever be a burden? Would there not be moments, at a concert when they crane to hear the music from their precarious seats in the balcony, that Pippa and her husband would feel rage in their hearts when they considered that but for Suki and her wretched allowance they would be sitting in the stalls? Bognor Regis might be okay for a holiday for one or two years, but if Pippa's remotely human she'll have a beastly little calculator in her brain that adds up all the money that's gone out to Suki and tots up, one day, that they could have afforded a cruise to Madeira were it not for the loathsome, fickle, Suki.

And anyway, before making any plans, she should at least wait a couple of years. Attractive women - and Suki is clearly one - are still attractive at 60. She will still be fascinating enough to capture a fourth husband if she pays her cards right. A woman of charm never loses it, even in her eighties, and if I were Pippa I wouldn't feel too sorry for her sister. I bet there's life in the old girl yet - if not a pool, a yacht and a stable, certainly a comfortable suburban home with someone who worships at her feetn

What readers say

She is not your responsibility

Your sympathy for Suki is understandable but misplaced. You and your husband have been sensible and worked hard and you are entitled to enjoy your retirement without propping up someone who has been irresponsible, even if she is your sister.

There is a saying "We are the sum total of our own choices" and Suki is responsible for her own life and needs to stand on her own feet. She is not your responsibility. By all means stay on friendly terms if you want to but I think it would be quite inappropriate to give her any allowance.

Margaret Simmons

No guarantees in marriage

Quite honestly I find women like Suki irritating and feel cross with them. How stupid to leave your fate in the hands of another! No marriage comes with a lifetime guarantee and many middle-aged women find themselves in a horrible situation of no man, no money, no way of making any money.

Did Suki make a monthly allowance to her "poor relations?" I bet not - I bet it didn't cross her mind.

It sounds hard, but left to her own devices Suki will invest in some very good face cream and find another meal ticket. If her sister makes a monthly allowance to her, it won't be repaid then, or the favour returned.

Ruth Coomber

Where's your self-esteem

Is your sister a demi-goddess? Or an alien perhaps? You talk as though you are a mere humble Earth-dweller lucky to even exist in the same hemisphere as this hallowed being. Her ruthless egotism has not only afforded her countless men and riches - only imaginable in your wildest dreams - but somewhere along the line relegated you to the position of an eternal lady- in-waiting - grateful for every cast-off, whether it be last season's frock or a five-minute coffee break before she met her latest lover.

Take her out to lunch, offer her the occasional dinner invitation (collecting her in your car if you must) but treat her like your sister - a human being. Whatever you do don't offer her a monthly allowance. At best, you'll demean yourself even further - at worst you may patronise and offend her obviously highly tuned sense of pride. Your feelings of guilt are strange only in that they seem to have totally clouded your own vital self-esteem.

Jamie Same

Financial revival

High-spending habits die hard, especially when using other people's money. Do you want to promote a disciplined and careful financial lifestyle for your sister?

We have exactly the same problem with a relative. We ask her to draft a "business plan", specifying her target bank balances and credit card debts and to name a date when she expects them to be achieved. When she achieves them, produces her next business plan and gets our agreement to it, we send her money. If she "requires more time to achieve her target" we agree a new date, but no cash changes hands until the targets are achieved.

Yes, it smacks of authoritarian attitudes and punishing processes. Checking performance, asking forceful financial questions, inspecting her bills and bank statements, these are not things "nice" relatives do to each other. She hates it; we hate it. But if you want to break long-established spendthrift habits and establish prudent, if frugal, financial management, the arrangement has one important merit. It works.

Ben York

Next week's problem: It's been 25 years and I want to move

Dear Virginia,

We have lived for 25 years of our married life in a huge house which was splendid when the three children were young but now is, frankly, getting me down. I am getting stressed with all the gardening and cleaning, even though my husband does his fair share. However, he doesn't want to move to a smaller place. I want to move for many reasons, partly so that I can begin a new phase of my life, but he is very sentimental and wants to stay here for ever. What can we do?

Yours, Kate

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning.

And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.