AARP Eye Center
No one told 54-year-old Carol she'd be the caregiver for her mother, Kathleen, who was declining from arthritis and Parkinson's disease. It was as if her relatives had voted her into the job at some mysterious family meeting to which she hadn't been invited. Carol felt the unspoken expectations of her three older sisters, aunts and Kathleen herself to drive her to medical appointments, make her meals and keep her company.
At first, she felt mostly proud and special playing this role. But as Kathleen needed more assistance over time, including help with grooming and toileting, Carol began to feel burdened. It was true, as her sisters sometimes reminded her, that she didn't have her own spouse and children to take care of. But she had a demanding job and close friends with whom she wanted to spend time. “You are Mom's favorite,” her sisters replied whenever Carol asked them why they weren't helping more. After two years of being Kathleen's assigned primary caregiver, Carol began to wonder if this was a privilege or whether her mother and sisters were using her.
AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.
In the majority of families caring for an older adult, the bulk of the care does fall on one person's shoulders. Research suggests that different families use different rationales for determining which person that is. In many, according to studies by Cornell University sociologist Karl Pillemer, it is the youngest or oldest daughter. In others, it is simply the person who lives closest and/or has the most available time to pitch in. Some families choose the adult child who received the most financial support from the parents in the past and “owes” them care now. With some cultures, it is the oldest son's wife who is expected to care for her in-laws.
Regardless of the method by which the primary caregiver is chosen, if she is required to make too many sacrifices while others contribute little, then she may become tired and resentful. Feeling used may even make her feel embittered and lead her to angrily confronting family members she thinks are manipulating her. How can these primary caregivers not be or feel used? Here are some ideas.
Don't expect equity
Caregiving families are not rowing teams in which each member pulls hard on the oars to propel the boat forward. They are often more like canoes in which one person paddles and the others enjoy the scenery. That primary caregiver, sweat pouring down her brow, may feel this is unfair. But everyone knows she won't put down her paddle and let the boat drift toward the rocks.