Dear Family Advisor

I'm afraid I've become a caregiver by default.

Last updated: Jul 10, 2009

I am a neighbor to a dear elderly woman. We've become close over the years (I'm about 20 years her junior), and I haven't minded doing little things for her. About six months ago, she broke her hip and I recently learned from her daughter (who lives in a city about two hours away) that my neighbor won't be driving in the future. I didn't mind helping out in the past, because we're friends and because I thought it was temporary, but now I get the feeling that they expect me to start driving her everywhere and keeping an eye on her. Honestly, I didn't sign up for this.

I really do care about her. How do I remain her friend but let her and her daughter know that I can't be her caregiver?

Being someone's caregiver is a huge responsibility, one that only gets bigger over time. You're wise to ask yourself, what should I do as a friend and neighbor? And if I start doing more, where will it take me?

It's time to sit down and have a talk with the daughter. Getting involved in another family's business may seem uncomfortable, but you're already involved. Her daughter might not mean to, but in some ways she may be using you: You're easy, you're there...and why should she drive two hours one way to do what's so simple for you to do? How your friend will get around and function is her family's responsibility, not yours. You have the right to decide how involved you want to be, and you need to state clearly what you're willing to do and unwilling to do.

But try not to be angry with your friend's daughter. She's scared and she has a lot to figure out. Also consider the possibility that you're assuming that they want you to do more than they actually expect. Talking about it directly will help clarify that.

Before you meet with the daughter, jot down your thoughts. Tell her your impression that they'd like you to do more caregiving. Make a list of things you already do or would like to do as an unpaid friend and neighbor. Maybe you're willing to bring in her paper, take her out to lunch occasionally, and call her daughter if your friend doesn't seem well. Offer things that don't feel like a burden freely, but be aware that if you start something you have to keep it up, so choose wisely! Also make another list, of "jobs" that you're not interested in doing --- such as playing chauffeur or picking up all her groceries --- and let the daughter know that the family will have to figure out other ways to meet these needs. You might even provide a list of community resources you're aware of, such as food delivery services, to help her get started. Or, if you'd be willing to take on additional responsibilities for pay, bring up that option.

The more you can show her daughter ways to handle it herself, the quicker she'll start looking beyond you for assistance.

Having you as her mother's neighbor and friend is a gift. Just knowing that someone's there, someone for her mom to wave to and who is aware of her situation, is a good thing for all of you. So many people don't even know their neighbors any more. Her daughter has many options for helping with care (she can hire a coordinator and other forms of care, or perhaps she'll move closer or invite her mother to move to her town) but she can't hire her mom a friend.

Can you be a good friend and still refuse duties you're not willing to take on? Absolutely! Don't get sucked into that "I should" mind-set or other people's guilt trips. Your friend and her family members are responsible for planning and providing for her care -- not you. Just because you're right down the street doesn't mean that you have to do anything.

On the other hand, don't recoil from your friend because you're afraid you'll have to help her. Understand that once she lost her ability to drive, her world suddenly got much smaller. Say "no" to what isn't a good fit for you, but continue being friendly. She needs you. Call her, stop by for tea, bring her a cupcake from the bakery, listen to her when she's scared. The "caregiving" conversations needn't get in the way of what you've built together.