Question: I am a 52 year old woman with blood cancer leukemia that is in remission. I work part time—just a few days a week. When I moved back to the city my dad lives in, my brother turned over responsibility for dad to me. My brother did this for six years and suddenly dumped it on my lap when I moved back.
My dad lives by himself. He has very limited mobility and bad knees, and he can't stand or walk for long. My apartment is a thirty minute drive away. I go over once a month to vacuum and clean his three-level condo. I also take him to his doctors’ appointments and do occasional grocery shopping for him. I help him with taking out his trash on rainy days, etc. when he can't do it, for fear of him slipping or falling.
He criticizes me constantly and is rude. I am resentful of my brother for leaving this to me, and I am sick of my dad’s uncaring attitude. He helps me pay bills I can't cover from my paycheck, and I in turn help him out, but I'd like more time for myself. He wants me more often, and says since I don't work much, I can help him more. I am already resentful. What should I do? He says I’m it, and refuses any outside assistance.
Dr. Amy: I love that saying by Stephen Covey: Seek first to understand and then be understood. It sounds like you and your brother might benefit from sitting down together and sharing your feeling on the topic of caregiving, and helping each other to better understand each other's situations. I think you need to do this before you will be able to talk about what is fair and how he might be able to help. Your brother may feel that he carried the load for six years when you were living in another city, and now it’s your turn. If he did it all by himself, he may feel you can too.
Seek first to understand his perspective. It might be a good idea to start by acknowledging everything your brother did in those six years. You could start by saying that, now that you are back in town and on task, you have a better appreciation for what it takes. Give him time to share his experience. How did he handle it all? Does he have some tips to share? If you were not able to help because of your illness and because you lived too far away, it might help for you to say that you are sorry you were not able to be more of a help to him during that time. Allow him to share his feelings about that. Be accepting of his feelings. Do not try to explain your side of the story. The goal is to help him feel heard and understood.
Next, it is your turn to be understood. Once your brother feels that you understand the contribution he made, he may be willing to think about helping you. You might open this part of the conversation by sharing how you feel and what you would like your brother to do. Is he helping at all these days? Does he work full time? What would help you the most? If he is not immediately willing to sign up to help, leave the door open for further conversation another time. It may take him time to think about it.
I encourage you to be candid with your dad. Tell him how much you appreciate his support and how happy you are to be able to help him. Share with him how you feel, when he is rude to you. Try to express your feelings in a way that doesn't make him feel defensive. You also need to be clear about what you can do given your paid work and the fact that you need to maintain your health.
A lot of the pressure will be taken off you if your brother will share the load. At the same time, your dad may think that since he is giving you money to pay your bills, he has the right to expect your support. My hope is that you are offering him all that is reasonable in the way of support and that he will acknowledge this and get supplementary help from outside if your brother won’t pitch in. It might be helpful to have a geriatric care manager assess his situation. Does it make sense for him to maintain a three story condo with his mobility issues? What are his options? Are sources of support are there in the community?
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