Dear Family Advisor

I feel cornered: My siblings assume I'll look after our parents simply because I live the closest.

Last updated:

February 09, 2009

Fortunately there have been no major crises, but nobody wants to talk about it as a family, including my parents. They don't seem to be taking any steps to plan for their own future care.

We've been a dysfunctional but caring family, though I was never the favored child. I've had a difficult relationship with my parents for a long time. I chose to move far away from my family as an adult, and that made it bearable to interact with them in a limited way. Recently my family and I moved back to the same state.

Because I now live nearest to my parents, my siblings assume that I will house them and care for them when they can no longer live independently. They bully me and claim they will be too busy, and my parents also seem to take this plan for granted. All this leaves me feeling torn and worn inside!

As unfair as it seems, most families have a “designated caregiver.” That person is often chosen by default -- because he or she happens to be more “medical,” or is working from home or retired, or, as in your case, lives the closest. Although one person usually has to be the leader -- the one who will be proactive -- there are many ways to contribute to the caregiving journey, and the whole job doesn't need to fall on one person's shoulders.

Caving in to other people's expectations in a situation like this is all too easy. But if you do, you'll resent it. It will greatly affect your relationships, you won’t be a good caregiver, and worse, you'll have let yourself down.

Since you’re not comfortable with being the primary caregiver, you'd better speak up now, while your parents are still independent. State that just because you live the closest -- for now -- things change, and even if you stay, you do not want the role of caregiver dumped solely on you. As harsh as the word “dumped” sounds, let them hear it. Tell them, parents included, that you feel used and that their assumption isn’t going to fly.

Even though your family hasn't been willing to discuss your parents' care before, ideally, you'll spur everyone to talk -- talk about the future, the choices, and the opportunities. You'll also want to voice a more positive outlook on the situation -- for instance, you might express your hopes that everyone will find a way to contribute to your parents' care, and that there should still be plenty of time left for everyone to "have a life” and enjoy good health if the whole family works together.

Don't expect a quick solution. Assumptions are really, really hard to break, and even if you state over and over again that you’re not going to be the only caregiver, you'd better be prepared to not be heard for a while. For some families, those childhood identities (the shy one, the clown, the responsible one) are never forgotten. It can be extremely hard to break out of the mold and for our siblings and parents to see us as adults who have grown and changed.

After you express your feelings, the best way to break the assumption that you’re going to be there is sadly, by not being there. Don’t start a job you don’t want. It’s much better to pull back now before things get more serious.

Of course, if a fall, heart attack, or car accident occurs you'll respond, but you can opt not to take care of minor things. If everyone assumes you’ll take Dad to all his doctor’s appointments, tell them clearly you won’t be available and it’s best for them to make other plans. Don’t always answer your cell phone or home phone or return calls immediately. The challenge will be in staying consistent. Just like when we're trying to lose weight, it’s not only our behavior that has to change, it’s our belief system.

Remember, too, that as much as it’s crucial to set boundaries now, it’s also important to keep your heart in the right place. I hope you’ll develop a deeper relationship with your parents long before they need regular care. Try to be alone with your mom or dad. Go out to lunch or the library. Enjoy where you are and where they are right now. You might find, to your surprise, that a lot of your early-life angst has begun to subside and that you start appreciating your parents as people.

As we grow in our own adulthood, we can begin to not be upset at every little thing that used to push our emotional buttons. As your conversations with your parents deepen, try to get them to talk about living options. This should happen naturally, just in the course of talking, and should be gently brought up again and again. The main reason people clam up is because our “big” talks aren’t woven into normal conversations. Parents feel cornered and they panic. They end up sounding angry, and they shut down and can’t even think about a future when they’re less healthy and agile than they are now.

By really getting to know, respect, and value your parents right now, you can help them figure out how to age comfortably by brainstorming various solutions along the way.

Keep the ultimate goal in mind: that all of your siblings and you can flow in and out of your parents' lives as needed, and that you can all participate as time goes on. Each of you can play a valuable role, and you can help the last years of your parents' lives to be filled with great memories.