Dear Family Advisor

My neighbor depends more on me for care than on her own family.

Last updated: Mar 30, 2011

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My neighbor and I are both widows and have enjoyed several years of going out to dinner, sharing errands, and even taking a few weekend trips. Last fall she got lung cancer, which has spread. Since her daughter lives two hours away, I took it on myself to check on her daily, provide some meals, and even take her to chemotherapy and other appointments. I was glad to do this -- that's what friends and neighbors should do.

But it's now become a full-time job, and I have my own health concerns. My neighbor is starting to treat me differently, expecting that I take her places and getting upset if I have other plans. I've hinted to the daughter that I can't take on this much care. But now I feel stuck -- and guilty for not doing more.

How do I get her daughter to provide the care that family should give, so that I can go back to being a good neighbor and friend?

People make assumptions, and it sounds as if your neighbor's daughter is letting you take on more caregiving duties than you can handle because you haven't said -- or shown -- that you can't. Hinting hasn't gotten you anywhere, so it's time to be clear about what you can and can't do. As much as you care for your friend, it's not fair or healthy for her care to land on your shoulders. If you don't speak up soon, this relationship will hold nothing for you but resentment and frustration. So as difficult as it may be, it's time to use your words.

Call, e-mail, or write your neighbor's daughter and start the conversation with what's known as the "sandwich method." First say something positive, followed by areas that need changing or addressing, and end on a positive note. Begin by saying that you care for your friend, but you've taken on more than you can manage and you'll be taking a step back. Don't bemoan all you've done and don't make excuses about why you can't continue. It will dilute your message. Write or state clearly what you would like to continue doing: getting her mail, checking on her in the early afternoon, taking her on one or two errands a month -- whatever you feel is needed and a good fit for your life.

Give her daughter links to local resources that can help her mom. She may have no idea where to start in the caregiving jungle, so head her in the right direction. Let her know that you'll "stay on" for two more weeks until she sets up some alternate help, and then you'll only be available to do what you stated above. Be very clear. Note the responsibilities you've take on so that she knows all you've been doing and what she needs to find a replacement for. At the end of the letter or talk, reemphasize how much your friendship with her mother means. Tell her that you want to go back to being her mother's friend -- someone she can talk to and a companion she can enjoy. That alone is a gift.

Now, here's the hard part: You have to keep your word. In two weeks, you have to stop meeting your friend's needs, as you said you would. That's going to be difficult, because you'll notice things that are going undone or aren't getting done the way you like them. And be prepared for the possibility that your neighbor (or her daughter) may be upset with you and may pout or cut you off. If she does, that's not mature and not your fault. You've been kind and thoughtful, taking on far more than most neighbors would. If she shuns you, let her. Ignore the digs. They're a defense mechanism, and the situation probably won't last forever.

Even if it does, do you want to be used without appreciation or understanding and then manipulated to continue? No. You know in your heart that you care for your neighbor. Give it time. Try to help her and her daughter through this transition, but don't get sucked in because you feel guilty or want them to like you. They should already like you.

Another hard part: Suddenly your life might feel empty. That's what happens after caregiving; the void can feel like a giant cavern. As much as you longed for your autonomy, you may not know what to do with yourself. Make more friends. Connect with other neighbors. Join the Y. Take a class at the senior center. Get out. Even when it's hard and would be oh-so-easy to go back to what you've been doing for so long, don't do it. You'll realize that your neighbor's circumstance caused your world to grow smaller.

I know you care, and I'm glad you do. Sometimes we don't know how we got into an unhealthy or restrictive circumstance -- it just crept up on us. Getting out is going to take some real tenacity, but there's so much waiting for you. Put time and investment into your own life. And whenever you're feeling particularly vulnerable, remember that by getting out of the way, so to speak, you're giving this daughter and mother a chance to reconnect. It's their choice to take it.

Just think: It's possible that one day in the near future the two of you can sit on the porch and talk about the day and about the new people each of you has met or the loved ones you've reconnected with. You can talk and laugh and enjoy each other again, like two good friends.

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