Virginia Ironside's dilemmas

  • @IndyVoices

At 45, my older sister is nearly blind. She is also confined mostly to a wheelchair. She lives in special accommodation. I try to visit her most weeks but my problem is that her life seems to be based only around these visits.

When I arrive she tells me how lonely she's been, then she rings later to say that now I've gone she feels bereft. I have tried cheering her up and phoning most days, but I hear nothing but how lonely she feels. There is a limit to my sympathy, I'm afraid, and I'm starting to feel really resentful. And yet I feel so selfish. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Philippa

Virginia says... When people are low and depressed, singing and dancing and visiting can sometimes do the trick, it's true, but sometimes, oddly, it just serves to make things even worse. The relationship is so clearly defined, like a doctor and patient. They're tragic, helpless and depressed. You're full of beans, patting them on the head, encouraging them to look on the bright side. In other words, the whole process of trying to "cheer someone up" can often be rather infantilising for the person who's being cheered.

Anyway, as this hasn't worked so far, why not try to reverse the relationship? Next time you leave your sister, get distressed yourself. If she asks what's the matter, say: "I can't bear to leave you like this, you know... every time I leave you I feel so terrible. I feel sad about your situation, and I feel so guilty, and then when you ring to say how unhappy you are... sometimes I feel it would be better not to come, my leaving causes you so much pain... I'm beside myself with anxiety."

Giving her the gift of the ability to comfort you, to play parent rather than child, would help her. It would be good for her to worry about someone other than herself, and also make her, poor, powerless soul, to feel needed by someone. Then stoicism, rather than complaint, would have a meaning. And if there is an occasion when you visit and your sister doesn't complain about her situation or bemoan your going, then you must ring afterwards and say: "I know how ghastly it is for you, but I so appreciated your making our painful parting so much easier this time. It makes so much difference to me..." and so on. Reward her for not making a fuss.

If this doesn't work, there's always: "Look, I know it's sad. It's an absolutely ghastly situation for you – and for me, as I get so upset when I love you and know how lonely you are. All we can do is try to make the best of it. It's horrible and I'm in agony, but let's both try to put a brave face on things... it would help me so much."

And if none of these tactics works, you simply have to come to terms with the situation. You will continue to visit. She continues to be grief-stricken. This is how it always will be. You are doing your best. Offer your pain up to the gods. Knowing it's a cross you have to bear for ever might, oddly, make it less heavy.

Readers say...

You shouldn't suffer


You must know what she really wants. Your sister wants you to live with her and care for her. It's time to bring this into the open.

In my grandparents' time, it was normal for a daughter to surrender her life to caring for aged parents – or any family member who could no longer manage. These days are long gone in the white community, though something similar still exists in the Asian community.

You should not suffer in this way. You have a right to a life of your own.

I am 83 and determined not to be a burden on my children if I can no longer cope. The welfare state must care for the healthy as well as the needy.

Ainslie Walton By email


Get family involved

As well as continuing to be as supportive as you can, you might try asking friends or family members to accompany you on your next visit.

Perhaps they could then begin visiting alone? That way your sister will have more people to keep her company, will feel loved and be less dependent on you.

Laurence Dudley By email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,
My boyfriend of a few months has suffered from anxiety and depression, on and off. He feels guilty at being responsible for someone else's feelings (probably because his mother was an alcoholic who relied on him for emotional support). It means that in relationships when he gets too close, he panics and ends it. He says he doesn't want this to happen with me, but he now wants a couple of months on his own to sort himself out. However understanding I am, I can't really understand the extent of his anxiety. Why won't he just commit?
Yours sincerely, Val

What would you advise Val to do?

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