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TODAY contributor
updated 1/29/2009 3:09:10 PM ET 2009-01-29T20:09:10

Q. My older sister has had our mom living with her in another state for about four years now. A few months ago, I graduated from university and moved to that same state. I am living with them for a few months while I go through my transitional phase and get my own apartment.

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However, my sister has now told me that she wants to move out of her apartment and leave me there with my mom. I did not plan this. My plan was to move into my own apartment and have my own space. I feel like I would not be able to live my life the way I fully want to if my mom lives with me. Am I being selfish or wrong to want to live on my own and not have my mom there?

A. No, it is not selfish or wrong. It is quite understandable that you wish to live your own life in your own home and not be responsible for your mother’s life as well as your own.

But the way you feel doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the way you ought to act. The real question for you becomes: What do you do?

Your sister is clearly saying that she is not happy to be the one responsible for your mother. She is saying that she has done it for four years and it is now your turn. There’s nothing unreasonable about siblings sharing the burden of a parent. It shouldn’t necessarily fall to one sibling, unless one sibling is particularly willing and able.

Sometimes people live with a parent because they want to. They might enjoy doing so because they have a close and loving relationship. In these cases, there is rarely resentment. Or it might be financially beneficial for everyone. Sometimes you do it because you have no other options — because you must.

But sometimes it is out of guilt that a child takes in a parent. The parent might be unpleasant, disruptive or interfering. This is often a recipe for mutual unhappiness.

You don’t have to sacrifice your life for your parents if you really don’t want to. You are entitled to have a life of your own, and so is your sister.

In your situation, your mother has doubtless figured out your sister is trying to pawn her off on you, and you don’t want her. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that any of you will have positive relationships with one another. Your relationships might, in fact, be better if nobody felt burdened and if everyone concerned had their own space. Your sister already feels annoyed that she is saddled with this responsibility.

The big question I would ask is: Does the task of taking in your mother have to fall to any sibling? You don’t mention anything about your mother’s health or finances, and don’t say they are a problem. Why does your mother have to live with one of you? Is she unhealthy or incapacitated?

If so, does she need an assisted-living situation? Maybe she would be better off with a roommate, a home health aide, a job or a dog. Are there other siblings who could pitch in if she needs help? Could you come up with a solution that works for everybody? Maybe you could all live very nearby and visit often, or help your mother set up a life of her own instead of fostering a situation where she is utterly dependent on one of you.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: There are ways siblings can share the care of a parent without sharing living quarters with that parent.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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