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How Family Caregivers Can Deal With Nosy Neighbors

Learn ways to brush off unsolicited input and advice

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Photo Collage: Matt Chase; (Source: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty; Shutterstock (2))

Anyone of a certain age remembers the character Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched. She was constantly peering out the window, watching the comings and goings of her neighbors. She knew all the gossip, and she had her opinions.   

Though every community probably has some version of Mrs. Kravitz, most of us can brush off the behavior, chalk it up to someone who has nothing better to do. But when it comes to caregiving, an outsider who thinks they “know better” or even a family member with a pointed opinion, can get under anyone’s skin. 

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Amy Goyer, AARP’s family and caregiving expert, moderates the private AARP Family Caregivers Discussion Group on Facebook. She says nosy neighbors and unhelpful family members are a common topic among the 18,000 members of the group.

“Stressed out caregivers can become extremely frustrated as they struggle to do their best for their loved ones,” Goyer says. “When someone who doesn’t understand the situation offers unsolicited advice or criticism, it can really trigger caregivers, leading to exchanges that are often regretted later. It’s critical that caregivers learn how to manage these folks to maintain their own equilibrium.”

People, especially those who have traveled down the caregiving road, will often be free with their opinions, thinking they know best regarding a loved one’s safety or making remarks about behavior, diet and what they perceive as the “right” kind of care. For a caregiver who is doing everything they can to provide aid, in addition to managing their own life, this can be maddening.

Jennifer Antkowiak, 55, is the founder of Take Care Tips, a comprehensive resource for all types of caregivers. She hosts a podcast and is a regular speaker at workshops and conferences, offering strategies for self-care and stress relief. A former TV anchor at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, she was thrust into the world of caregiving as a full-time working mom of five, when her mother-in-law and then her father-in-law became ill. 

“There are so many things going on with caregivers, and stress is always a factor,” Antkowiak says. “Well-meaning people may come off as overstepping their boundaries. The first thing I tell caregivers is to first, pause, take a breath, and do an audit of their emotions to examine where they are coming from. Caregiving puts us all at a heightened level of sensitivity. Some describe it as feeling like they’re on a hair trigger. Having that awareness is an important step in deciding how you will tackle the situation.”    

Balancing help and independence

Rachel*, 46, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is a plane ride away from her 82-year-old father, Al, in southern Florida. Caregiving from afar has its challenges, and though she and her sister visit regularly, it’s an imperfect situation as he becomes increasingly frail.

“My father is the most determined person I know,” Rachel says. “Like so many in his generation, he’s proud of his independence.” Al worked full-time in New York City’s garment district and went on to have a successful career in textiles before starting his own importing and sales business, which he runs to this day. 

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Far too early, Al became a caregiver to his wife, Margaret, when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease; in 2002, tragedy struck when Margaret suddenly died from a cardiac arrhythmia at the age of 60. The dreams Al and Margaret had of travel and snowbirding were shattered, but Al forged ahead and started a new life, as an independent bachelor, dividing his time between Florida and New York. 

Things in Florida were going swimmingly until 2015, when Al took a bad fall. After several months of recuperating in a hospital, he developed a muscle atrophy condition that makes it more difficult to walk. Though physical therapy has helped, he is reluctant to do it on his own without professional supervision. One of Rachel’s big frustrations is that he will not ask for help, which puts her in a caregiving conundrum. 

The result is that Al is an extreme fall risk, and he has fallen many times over the past few years, always when Rachel was not there. After one fall, Al asked a neighbor for help, and the person gossiped about it throughout the condo complex where they live. It created an unhelpful situation for Rachel, and she resented that the person didn’t have the grace or discretion to keep the incident private.  

After another fall, a neighbor who came to the rescue had a grandmother who had Parkinson’s, which gave the neighbor empathy around the desire for independence. On the phone with the woman later, Rachel was grateful for her kind attitude and understanding. “It definitely reminded me there is a right way to respond, rather than just telling someone what they should do,” Rachel says.  “Empathy and compassion are very different than pity. And they are so appreciated in every caregiving situation.”  

Al’s falls keep occurring — along with the unsolicited commentary from neighbors. Rachel is adamant that she and her sister are not oblivious to what’s happening with their father’s mobility, but every time they raise the issue of moving, he refuses, preferring to stay in his apartment. “We wish he’d be more accepting of help and regularly do his PT, but we don’t need outside people giving their unsolicited opinions. Honestly, what is the alternative? Tie him down inside and make him do his exercises?”

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Rachel’s reaction when people assert their opinions is to try to be polite, turn it back on them and ask how they are doing. “I can’t speak my mind, because they are my father’s neighbors, and they all need one another. What I want to say is, ‘We’ve got this covered, and we don’t need your pity.’ Everyone is battling through things, and everyone has a story. We don’t always know what’s going on inside with people and their relationships,” she says. 

Find the root of the frustration

Antkowiak works with clients to help determine whether there’s one specific person who is problematic or if it feels as if everyone is coming at them with unsolicited advice. “There are a number of different responses, and we always have a choice,” she says. “You can be polite and ignore the advice, or you can choose to try to educate the person about the situation. Think about what will happen if you do nothing and let it fester, which is another option but not one that always ends well. 

“When I ask caregivers a series of questions to try to help them get at the root cause about the frustration they’re feeling about the nosy neighbor, many times they realize that the individual doesn’t really know the particulars of the situation. If they had more information, they might not be so quick to offer their two cents,” Antkowiak says. She cautions that if the caregiver is having a particularly stressful day, even if someone asks a neutral question, they may hear it as confrontational.

Rachel and her sister understand that their father is somewhat in denial about his mobility, and he admits he’s lazy when it comes to doing his exercises. But Al is mentally sharp as ever, regularly giving lip service to his daughters, then canceling the caregivers they scheduled to check on his therapy. “We’re in a period where we can’t force our father to do anything,” Rachel says. “I’m not sure what other people think we could be doing differently, but I resent that some feel as if they know what’s going on. For better or worse, this is the situation in which we find ourselves, and we are trying to navigate it while maintaining our own sanity and his dignity.” 

One important thing to note, according to Antkowiak, is that many caregivers report that they constantly feel they aren’t doing enough. If they are up to their eyeballs in unsolicited advice, that may exacerbate the pressure they’re under. 

Speak Easier

Here are some tips on handling nosy neighbors — and not becoming one — from Rachel*, caregiving advocate Jennifer Antkowiak and AARP family and caregiving expert Amy Goyer.

Tips for friends and neighbors:

  • Be empathetic . Rather than being judgmental or offering unsolicited opinions, commiserate with caregivers or acknowledge that loved ones can be stubborn. Let them know you understand their situation.    
  • Ask what kind of support would be helpful , rather than peppering them with questions and opinions.  
  • Make practical suggestions. Don’t just point out concerns, find out what is being done, then add any options that haven’t been tried. For example, if you’re concerned about physical safety, ask the caregiver if their loved one has helpful tools such as the Apple Watch with fall alerts set up or a medical alert device/personal emergency response system (PERS) . Offer to help research the options if a caregiver is busy and overwhelmed.  
  • Assist with tasks that would help your neighbor stay safe , such as carrying groceries, helping them up the stairs, providing transportation to appointments or stopping by on a regular basis to check on them.    

Tips for caregivers:

  • Build your own confidence. “If I got unsolicited advice, I let it roll off my shoulders because I felt confident that I was doing my best for my loved ones,” Goyer says. “I said thank you and moved on.” If you feel unsure of the options and your decisions, it can make you more vulnerable to criticism. To ensure you are covering all the bases, you might consider seeking help from a professional such as a geriatric care manager, aging life care expert, staff from the area agency on aging or a physical or occupational therapist.       
  • Rethink the role of neighbors. As caregivers, remember that most people are well-meaning. They may be genuinely concerned and unsure of what to do. Try to do a “mind reset,” avoiding assumptions about the nosy neighbors. Look at the people around you as assets — people who can help if you have specific tasks for them.   
  • Understand where the concern is coming from. Realize some people are uncomfortable as they watch a neighbor fail or be vulnerable in other ways. It can be scary — a reminder of their own mortality. Some don’t handle it gracefully.    
  • Make the best choices for the long term. You have control over your responses, even in challenging moments. Be sure to ask yourself, is this a bridge I want to burn, or can this person be an ally?  
  • Protect family relationships. If it’s your aunt or sibling who is offering unsolicited advice, triggering your fury or defensiveness, develop communication strategies to deal with them without ruining family ties. Maintain control of your situation by choosing whom you want to share certain pieces of information with. Perhaps it’s better to only share the details with people who demonstrate genuine support.  
  • Set boundaries with kind, but final responses. Think about a few noncommittal phrases you can use when approached by neighbors or unhelpful family members. Try to avoid being defensive. You might say, “It’s so kind of you to be concerned about (your loved one). Is there something you are willing to do to help address the situation?” Another option: “Thank you for your concern. I know you understand how difficult it can be to (name the concern). I really appreciate your support,” which may help turn them from a criticizer into an ally.

“An internal sense of self-doubt — the sense of ‘I can’t quite do it all’ — can be at the heart of how we receive what someone is often intending to be helpful,” Antkowiak says. “What didn’t I get done today?” is a constant mantra that creeps into the caregiver’s brain when the house is quiet. When we are sad, when our loved ones are failing or dying, it’s easier to feel under siege. That makes it harder to challenge the assumption that someone might be inserting themselves or intruding, according to Antkowiak. “It’s easy to believe that others don’t understand the challenges we face, but it’s usually in everyone’s best interest to fight the urge to be short or dismissive of neighbors, and instead try to first realize that they may genuinely care and are just trying to help.  

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

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