Vintage photo of mother with children disguised in Carnival costumes, early eighties

So often the duties of caregiving fall on a single family member, even when there are other people who are equally responsible for providing care.

Sure, it can make sense for one person to serve as the point person when dealing with complicated medical and financial issues. Perhaps one person is assumed to have more free time to spend on care work. Maybe you just live the closest.

None of those mean one person should shoulder the entire burden of care.

There are plenty of ways to share information with a group of trusted friends and family — including a zillion apps — so everyone knows when Gram needs to be taken to an appointment, to mark off when medication has been given, to make sure meals are prepared and served, to keep the house and yard tidy, and to keep people in the loop about medical information.

Now you just have to get people on board so you have a care team instead of everything falling on you.

Make sure they know there is work to be done

Sometimes people are so caught up in their own lives that they’re oblivious to what’s going on and how they could be helping. They may assume you have it under control and thus don’t need to do anything. So many times care recipients are embarrassed that they need help and respond by minimizing it, telling friends and family that they’re doing great and leaving you to take care of everything on your own. It’s time to clue them in.

This is where one of those apps to share care work can come in handy. While it takes some time and effort to put everything that needs to be done into an app (or google doc or group chat or whatever works for you) it can demonstrate just how much needs to be done. Everyone has a way they can contribute.

Tell, don’t ask

Find a time when you can talk to them one at a time about what’s going on and how they could help out. Giving people specific tasks and making it clear that you can’t do it, without necessarily giving excuses for why not, moves things from your list to theirs.

“Gram needs you to prepare dinner and sit with her on Thursday from 6 to 10 while I’m out.”

Sorry, I’m busy <

“I can’t be there, so if you aren’t available please find someone who is. Maybe you could ask so-and-so.”

Fine, I’ll call so-and-so. <

“Great, I’ll send over a list of her dietary restrictions and leave out the medication she needs to take before bed.”

Sometimes it’s necessary to ignore their tone and keep your focus on the goal — to get them to do their share. We manage to keep our cool with irrational bosses or whiney kids all the time, we can do it with our siblings, too.

Be firm that it’s their problem to solve, not yours. You can’t do it, so they need to take care of it or find someone else who can. Remember, you are all equally responsible for providing care, so you don’t need to justify not being able to do everything yourself.

Set them up for success. Give clear instructions — what you do is pretty complicated to someone who is trying to step in for the first time. Handing off a task for the first time can be a lot of work, but it’s important.

Work with their strengths

When we live with people, we end up automatically dividing up chores and responsibilities based on abilities and interests. We can divide care work the same way.

Ask the handy person in the family to take care of repairs and shovel the snow. Someone living in another country can still sort out the bills and other paperwork. Someone who is already running errands can pick up a few more things while they’re out. Teenagers are perfectly capable of preparing meals, tidying up, and keeping someone company.

Don’t forget that no one wants to feel helpless. Keeping the care recipient as involved in their own care — or helping other people however they can — is important. Put grandma to work helping the grandkids with their homework, making lunches for the week, calling to check in on isolated neighbors, or however else she can contribute.

Don’t use guilt or shame (even if they deserve it)

We all know a your mom joke is a surefire way to get into a fight on the playground. Suggesting someone has failed in their duties to a parent or another family member is just as likely to turn any conversation into an argument. Regardless of how remiss they have been, using guilt or shame makes people defensive and torpedoes the conversation.

Sticking with the facts and saving how you feel for our groups (or another safe space) is more likely to get someone else to show up. If you’re upset, wait until you’re feeling grounded and calm to have a conversation about sharing responsibility more appropriately.

It’s work, but it’s important for them to do it

If they push back, remind them that she’d like to see them or suggest how it’d be meaningful for them to spend time together.

“I feel like I’m keeping Gram to myself and I’m sure you want to spend time with her, too. What day this week can you come by? She’d love to go to the park.”

Resist the urge to guilt them into it. Instead, use what you know about them and their relationship to the care recipient to remind them that quality family time is important for everyone. Maybe there’s an activity they both enjoy or a way to get the care recipient involved in their normal lives — going to the kids soccer games, setting up regular dinners together, or just having a movie night at home.

Quality time with family is important. Sometimes that quality time looks like errands. Our most important memories and the things that build relationships don’t happen just during special occasions.

Let go of things being done the ‘right’ way

Sharing tasks comes with the risk that things may not get done or may be done in ways that seem wrong. Sometimes you have to let the ball drop in order to get people to realize you’re serious about them stepping up to the plate.

If someone seems likely to drop the ball, start out with tasks you’re prepared to let them mess up — and then let them deal with the consequences.

Maybe that means stepping back and letting it not be your problem when a bill isn’t paid and there’s a late fee. Maybe it’s a missed appointment that needs to be rescheduled. Maybe they’ll do something in the least efficient, most absurd way possible. Whatever it is, let go and let them do it.

Be clear about what you’re willing and able to do and what someone else needs to take care of.

Be prepared for weird stuff to come up

Remember that this taps into all sorts of existential fears and weird issues going back to childhood. If they get worked up, resist the urge to fight and wrap up the conversation.

“It sounds like now’s not a good time to talk. Have a good night and I’ll check in later.”

Try again another time. Let go of the past (at least for now) and remember that you have a goal.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.

Even if your family is never going to look like this:

back view of big multigenerational family walking together on seashore



You can make it through this and still be a family at the end.

Written by Cori Carl
As Director, Cori is an active member of the community and regularly creates resources for people providing care.

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