Dear Family Advisor

How can I get my elderly friend's children and sister to help take care of her?

Last updated: Oct 20, 2008

I am guardian and conservator of a very dear friend, Dorothy. She has a son who lives locally who makes no effort to see or call his mother. The daughter lives in another state, doesn't call often enough, doesn't send a card or call on her birthday. Her sister lives nearby and takes her for holidays, but if I need help with things for Dorothy, like taking her to a doctor or dentist appointment, she's never available.

I'm 74 years old and sometimes unable to do everything. How can I get through to the sister that occasionally Dorothy needs help, and how can I get the kids to stay in touch with their mother?

What would we do without our friends? Dorothy is very fortunate to have you in her life -- and she's closer to you, it seems, than to her blood relations. That's often the case -- sometimes because of location or compatibility, but mostly because you share a kindred spirit.

As a friend, you've taken on a huge responsibility, but it shouldn't be yours alone. The best thing now will be to forge a relationship with Dorothy's family in which you are all partners in her care. This is a two-part process, and it may take some time and effort on your part -- if you're willing to do it.

The first goal is to get Dorothy together with her children and sister, so they can get to know one another again. There's usually some reason for such distance in families, and as much as we love our friends, it's sometimes difficult for us to see them as flawed parents or siblings. There may be past wounds that are keeping her children or sister physically and emotionally separated from her. There's no better gift you can give your friend than the opportunity to heal a relationship.

First, let's consider why Dorothy's family is so uninvolved in her care. Could they simply be more clueless than heartless? Have they ever been asked to help with Dorothy's needs? They may assume that you've got it all covered. Even worse -- but not uncommon with younger people -- they may think that you've got nothing better to do.

Next, you should let them know that your legal roles don't include providing all of Dorothy's care. Do they think you stand to gain monetarily? Most guardians don't, but at some point you may want to let them know that and that you're not doing this for the money.

Another possibility to consider: Dorothy's sister and children may feel a little jealous of your relationship. If they seem callous, cold, snappy, or standoffish, this could actually be why. If this is the case, you shouldn't try to bring them back into Dorothy's life by yourself -- she should. They need to hear from her that they are needed and wanted.

Because of your unique position as legal guardian and conservator, you may end up being the bridge between Dorothy and her relatives for a while. If the family members have deep-seated issues that they haven't dealt with, they may want to talk to you about them when you call. Try to listen with an open mind. We all have family -- and family issues! Whatever their issues are, however, they need to take some part in Dorothy's care.

You might start out by making weekly or biweekly phone calls to the children. Let them know you'll be giving them regular updates on their mother's condition. If you do it from Dorothy's house, she can talk to them, too. You might also get cards for Dorothy to write in or sign and send to her daughter occasionally.

These things will be subtle reminders that Dorothy is their mother, and that they should know what's going on in her life. Don't mention the needs you have -- not yet -- if it feels to you that it will scare them away. You need to ease them into this.

Next, try inviting Dorothy's sister to a pleasant get-together -- a birthday gathering or holiday celebration for your friend. Does Dorothy have grandchildren? Why not plan a small birthday party? Don't just set a date -- ask them when they are available. Emphasize how much it means to Dorothy for everyone to be there.

As for her son, men typically like results. He may not necessarily want to come over to chat (or may feel awkward at it), but he may be willing to help solve a problem. Ask him to come over and fix something -- anything. You might tell him that you'll make some cookies, to make it a semisocial event. Men tend to gravitate from their mom to their wives, but that doesn't mean they don't have a connection to their moms, so make a call and see if he'll respond.

By the way, I can't tell you how many people (adults and kids) are a little afraid of elderly or ill people. Getting used to what aging looks and feels like, and figuring out what to talk about with an elderly person, can take some time. My point is that it may take some coaxing to get him involved. Don't give up.

Hopefully, this will move the family members toward getting more involved in Dorothy's care. The second part of the process is to draw them into it directly.

Create some true points of need, as you did by having her son come over to fix something. Start out with something like a doctor's appointment that you won't be able to take her to. Let her sister or son know way ahead of time. Tell them, "I need your help with your mom's care." Show your appreciation -- if they feel guilty all the time, they'll avoid you and her.

Plan a trip and let them know a few months in advance that it will be their responsibility to organize her care. Maybe this will be the daughter's turn to come home to help. Always be clear about what kind of help you need.

Slowly continue to let them know that you cannot keep shouldering this responsibility alone. Tell them that Dorothy's needs are growing as she ages, and you are aging too. You have your own life, family, and needs to consider.

If none of this works -- and it might not -- then you need to start searching for alternative care for your friend. Don't put this off, as it may take a while to find the right care for her. This is also something that her children can take on, if they aren't willing to physically help out.

You or they can look up the local council on aging or elder affairs department in your city or state, or stop by an assisted-living community or adult daycare center. All of them will have a list of resources for your community. Start with finding relief once or twice a month and build from there.

It's also time for you to think about your own health and needs. This doesn't make you a bad friend.

Do you see your doctor regularly? Are you walking or stretching? Taking your calcium? Attending church? Seeing your own family?

Caregivers are notorious for putting their needs last. Don't neglect your own needs and relationships. Learn from Dorothy's situation: It's important to stay part of the lives of your children, nieces or nephews, siblings, neighbors, and friends. This builds lifelong bonds and that will be important when you need help, as we all do at some point in our lives.