A Place for Mom

How to Make the Most of Your Role Among Family Caregivers

Deb Hipp
By Deb HippJune 26, 2019
How to Make the Most of Your Role Among Family Caregivers

If you’re taking care of a parent or senior loved one with other family members, chances are, you have learned that caregiving roles within a diverse group of people are rarely equal. 

How can you make the most of your role among family caregivers? Read these tips.

Do You Know Your Caregiving Role?

A spouse may shoulder the brunt of caregiving duties with adult children pitching in where they can. The adult child who lives near Mom might be the primary caregiver while other siblings visit, contribute money or help in other ways.

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Some family members may not contribute at all — or so it seems — to overwhelmed siblings.

Whatever the scenario, each person on the caregiving team can play a role in the overall care of a loved one, whether that person contributes energy, money or time, says Jennifer FitzPatrick, author of “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One.”

“Many times, people don’t consider themselves caregivers unless they live with their older loved one,” writes FitzPatrick. Yet even caregivers who live far away or aren’t involved in hands-on care can still play a crucial role in the caregiving team.

Most caregivers fall into one of three categories: primary; secondary or tertiary, FitzPatrick says. Whether you assist with activities of daily living (ADLs) like bathing and dressing or lend an ear to a brother who needs to vent, here’s how you can contribute more fully in your family caregiver role:

1. Primary caregiver.

The primary caregiver is the person who often organizes and performs the bulk of caregiving tasks, says FitzPatrick. If you’re the primary caregiver, you may have plenty of control over the type of care a loved one receives but the control advantage can also work against you, says Amanda Lambert, co-author of “Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home.”

“You may think you know what is best, but this can also lead to a reluctance to ask for help,” says Lambert. To complicate matters even more, stress on the primary caregiver is especially high. “Decisions made by the primary caregiver may be challenged or questioned by other family members,” says Lambert. “The responsibility of making decisions means that any consequences, negative or positive, are on you.”

Here are ways the primary caregiver can make his or her role more manageable and less stressful.

  • Be specific. Clearly spell out tasks that need to be done. When you’re specific, fellow caregivers are more likely to comply with your request, says Lambert. Ask your brother to pick up prescriptions or call you cousin to sit with Dad so you can have lunch with friends. “Let them know that you realize they may not be able to do everything you’re asking but also that anything they can commit to will be helpful,” she says.
  • Consider caregiver strengths. Ask each person to do something that he or she is naturally comfortable with, FitzPatrick says. For example, ask your sister to research home care agencies and online reviews. At the same time, don’t expect the sister who can’t boil eggs to prepare a weekly meal.
  • Let go of resentment. Wasting mental energy obsessing over a family member who disappeared as soon as Mom got sick won’t make anything better. “Some people are never going to step up to the plate, even after you give them many opportunities to help,” says FitzPatrick. “It takes a lot of patience and practice but letting go is sometimes best. Focus instead on those who are helping.”

2. Secondary caregiver.

The secondary caregiver is invested in the loved one’s care but may be unable or unwilling to be on the “front lines” of caregiving, says FitzPatrick. For instance, a secondary caregiver might offer emotional support to the primary caregiver or offer to sit with Dad or Mom to provide much-needed respite time.

Other ways a secondary caregiver can contribute include:

  • Grocery and other shopping
  • Helping financially
  • Preparing or providing meals
  • Picking up prescriptions
  • Researching in-home care and senior living options, care managers, caregiver support groups and elder law attorneys
  • Running errands

As a secondary caregiver, though, avoid overstepping the bounds of your role. If Dad isn’t receiving his medications on time, that’s a time to speak up. On the other hand, if he’s not getting served dinner at exactly 6 p.m. every night, that’s probably not worth bringing up.

“Secondary caregivers have to be careful about stepping on the toes of the primary caregiver,” says FitzPatrick. “They should be respectful and defer to the primary unless there is a true imminent danger to either the older loved one or the primary caregiver.”

3. Tertiary caregiver.

The tertiary caregiver isn’t directly involved but still provides support and stress relief to the primary and other caregivers. “The tertiary caregiver can have a significant impact on the primary and secondary caregivers,” says FitzPatrick.

Ways a tertiary caregiver can contribute:

  • Calling family caregivers to listen and offer moral support
  • Cleaning the house or paying for a housekeeper for the primary caregiver
  • Contributing money or gift cards to grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants
  • Making phone calls or looking things up online
  • Mowing the lawn or paying for lawn care
  • Paying the loved one’s bills online
  • Sending gift cards for a dinner out or massage for primary and secondary caregivers

Ways to Make the Most of Your Role Among Family Caregivers

Family caregiver roles often aren’t clearly defined, and they frequently overlap. “Everyone usually has a vague sense of what they’re supposed to be doing but it’s always ideal for the primary caregiver or his or her ‘appointee’ to keep updating the crew on ways they can help or about any changes,” says FitzPatrick.

Remember, just because you’ve assumed one caregiver role doesn’t mean you can’t shift to another once you and your fellow caregivers get a feel for which family members are best available and suited for various tasks.

“If you’re not comfortable in your role, consider whether a role switch is possible,” says FitzPatrick. “When caregivers are truly comfortable in their respective roles, they tend to suffer less stress.”

Which caregiver category or role among family caregivers are you in within your family? We’d like to hear more about your experiences and stories in the comments below.

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Deb Hipp
Deb Hipp

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