Primary Caregivers: Communication Tips with an Unsupportive Team Member
You wake up in the morning to a mountain of primary caregiver tasks. Your loved one needs breakfast. This week’s medications must be sorted. Shoot, the laundry’s still in the dryer! One of their doctors left you a voicemail when you managed a quick bathroom break.
And that’s just a morning in the life of a primary caregiver. Through the years as a personal care partner to my life partner/care partner, Brian – not to mention my life as a professional patient advocate – the most descriptive adjective for this is FRENETIC. All day, every day. So many fires to put out.
Providing. Assisting. Coordinating. Advocating. Praying. Being a second set of eyes and ears. Remembering when they can’t. Making time for self-care. And so many do this … alone. Roughly two out of three primary care partners (64%) feel isolated and more than four in five (84%) wish they had help – particularly from family.
Need Help? Primary Caregivers Must Advocate For It
Here’s another word that’ll sound familiar: RESENTMENT. It’s powerful. (It often overshadows another word – UNDERSTANDING – although most primary caregivers are justified in believing close family and friends could do more to help.) Primary care partner responsibilities for elders often fall disproportionately on an adult child, probably a daughter.
Unfortunately, care partners who view themselves as secondary often shy away from (or avoid entirely) their duties. The reasons for this may be legitimate. Some live far away. Many still work and must raise families of their own. Even more don’t know what to do, even if they agreed initially to help the care-partner team. They don’t want to get in the way. Their own guilt may prevent them from vocalizing uncertainties or circumstances.
Do you, as the primary care partner, know all this? Not without communication. Here’s an effective (albeit old-school) way to open the discussion: write a letter to the unsupportive team member(s).
Open the Care Partner Dialog with a Hand-Written Letter
Why a hand-written letter? It’s different. It’s not a text message, social media SOS or call that can be easily ignored – or put off to the point of being ignored. Receiving a personalized letter in the mail may be intriguing or even shocking. The recipient is more likely to open it, read thoroughly and thoughtfully consider its contents. (They’ll probably even read it twice.)
You may be wondering, “Where do I start?” or “How do I construct this letter?” Valid questions, especially with strong feelings and family relationships at stake.
Experts suggest these three easily understood approaches for primary caregivers to effectively write a letter asking for support.
1. Don’t Attack
When you finally sit down to write, all your feelings will surface, perhaps after being trapped inside for many years. You may feel compelled – even justified – to let it all pour out.
“Where have you been?” “How could you not care?” “You have a responsibility.” “You’re hurting him/her.” “You’re breaking our hearts.”
Your feelings are likely valid, and there’s certainly room for genuine truth and feeling. But firing off a list of grievances is the least diplomatic approach. Personal attacks will cause defensiveness. So write compassionately and try to understand (because, after all, you aren’t living their life and confronting their daily stressors).
Write this letter with kid gloves. You’re simply opening a dialog that brings results: the help you need as a primary caregiver.
2. Make a Specific Appeal
Continuing this no-drama, straight-to-the-point approach, ask for the things you and your loved one need SPECIFICALLY. There’s no room for ambiguity when urging an uninvolved care partner to perform specific tasks.
If your loved one and the care-partner team built a comprehensive life-care plan, recap its details (to jog the memory, if needed) and list their individual expectations. Stick to the facts.
“Before Mom’s health declined, you agreed to help with X, Y and Z. So far you have not done these things.”
Then put the ball in their court.
“If you can’t do these things or if your role(s) must change, please let me know. If you can, you’re welcome to help out.”
Minimize chances for argument. Request a phone call or in-person visit to discuss. Your letter may open the door to the care partner admitting they’re overburdened at work or facing financial issues. That’s fine. At least now you know to adjust.
3. Personalize Your Message
You’re all on the care-partner team because you truly care. You care for your loved one. You likely care (or have cared) deeply for other team members.
I’ve seen so many families ripped apart, with members vowing never to speak again following their loved one’s passing, all because care partners failed to communicate. Admittedly, it’s common for primary caregivers to CHOOSE to shoulder the burden alone due to pride or an “I know them best” mentality. That’s no reason to destroy a happy family.
Talk it through! Mention the scenarios that you struggle with, how their absence affects everyone. Include positive qualities about your relationship with the absent care partner and note how they could benefit everybody involved.
“You’re such a great cook. Dad would love it if we could get together for regular family meals again.” Or, “You’re amazing at organizing. That would help us clear out the clutter when Carol moves to assisted living.”
Primary Caregivers: Better Communication Starts with You
I know. Writing this letter is ONE. MORE. THING. you have to do. But primary care partners must eventually decide to stop beating their heads against a wall and advocate for more help. Sometimes the help won’t come. And that’s OK, at least you now know you’ll need to seek new people and resources for the care-partner team.
Caregiving is a labor of love. It’s demanding. Ask for (and accept) help. Sometimes, swallowing your pride is the best thing – for you and the care recipient. Get on the same page and come together for the sake of your loved one. If you need help writing your letter, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.