When they get older logo

Who takes responsibility when it’s a more distant relative who needs help?

Dear Lesley

We were visiting my parents over the Christmas holiday – I thought the visit would be an opportunity to see how they are getting on, as they are both in their 80s now, and was looking forward to a bit of a break myself. As it turned out, they are not doing so badly but my uncle, who came for Christmas lunch, collapsed and we had to take him to hospital which ruined the day, and things have been pretty fraught since then as well. While he’s been recovering from major surgery social services have visited his flat and discovered he’s not looking after himself well. The flat needs clearing and cleaning and he might need carers as well.

Now the question is who does this? The uncle lives some considerable distance from all of us.

We have two issues. One is that our family gets on best by not spending too much time together. We’re a mix of some who see themselves as organisers and others who do not take kindly to being told what to do. We’re at odds about who can most “easily” take time out to sort stuff out and engage cleaners and carers.

Second, while we’ve probably all recognised that we might have to support our parents one day, this extra responsibility has come as a bit of a shock. And, be honest, I don’t think any of us are particularly fond of this uncle who has never been really interested in any of us.

For now, we’re all being tight-lipped with ominous silences around each other, but I can see a storm brewing. What do we do?


Dear S

Christmas, and other times when families get together can be very stressful. Everyone is expected to have a great time and to get on together – but the cracks can soon start to show especially when something goes wrong. Christmas can also be a time when we see elderly relatives for a prolonged period and notice worrying signs of decline. The Alzheimer’s Society gets a surge of calls after the Christmas holiday – last year calls were up by 60% between December and January.

It’s good to know that your parents are doing well but the issue with your uncle is indeed a tricky one. Unfortunately it’s often not clear who should take responsibility for ageing parents who need more support and it can be even less clear when it’s elderly relatives and friends. In the best of cases someone steps up to the plate and is happy to do so.

But family members can be too busy with work or other family commitments. They may not have the medical, caring or organising skills needed. They may live too far away to be of much help. Or they may have doubts, as you do, about their obligations when the older person is, literally, not someone they “care for”.

Addressing the practicalities

So what about your specific situation?

It sounds like there is an agreement – albeit unspoken – that it wouldn’t be the right thing to simply wash your hands of the situation and leave it up to social services. At the same time, no-one wants or is in a position to put their own life on hold and do everything that needs to be done.

You have also figured out that, at this point, the key activities are to arrange for your uncle’s flat to be cleaned, to assess what his care needs might be and then to liaise with social services (or private providers) to put a care package put in place.

The problem seems to be mainly about deciding who will do what, who is “in charge” and how to work as a team when you there is no love lost between the team members!

Keeping conversations constructive

Although family dynamics are making people tetchy, it’s likely that everyone has similar feelings of confusion and resentment and wants to get the situation resolved.

This common ground may be a good starting point. It may feel easier to avoid discussions and thereby avoid conflict, but I suspect conversations are going to have to take place one way or another. The trick will be to keep them civilised, constructive and focused on the task in hand.

Would it be possible to hold a family conference to talk this through? Ideally, this should be held face to face on neutral ground with all the key players present. If not, then it might need to be a phone or Skype conference call (if anyone is savvy enough to set that up!). And it would be helpful if you could find someone who is less involved in the family dynamics to “mediate” and keep the conversation on track – perhaps your own parents, if they are able to be impartial, maybe a neighbour or trusted family friend?

However that initial conversation takes place, I would try and keep it fairly business-like. Start by recognising that there is a problem to be solved and that it will work best to share out the jobs as evenly as possible. “Many hands make light work” so try to involve anyone who is willing to help. Teenagers can be good at finding information online, neighbours might know a reliable cleaner or agency. Maybe you can all agree to take one day off work so that it feels “fair”?

It’s easy to argue and criticise – all families do – but try to recognise each other’s strengths and skills and have people do what they are best at. Make a pact not to bring up old scores. Focus on the essentials.

Keeping updated amicably

Hopefully, once a “good enough” plan is in place, agree how you will update each other in the future. A weekly conference call, emails or even a private Facebook page – saves more talking to each other! Ideally you want to end up in a situation where everyone has their distinct job to do and can do it in their own way without others interfering.

If it’s not possible to hold a family conference, perhaps you or someone else in the family who is best at remaining calm can take the lead, phone round and try and get into problem-solving mode.

Recognise that while family dynamics probably can’t be solved, you can still ask each person’s opinion about how to get through this difficult time together. It may feel awkward, but it’s probably better than battling away silently and hoping the problem will go away.

None of this is easy stuff but unfortunately it’s the kind of dilemma we’re all going to be faced with as part of our ageing population.

If you can find a way to work together, that could stand you in good stead for the future with your uncle – if you decide to keep up your involvement – or that of your parents. We’d love to know how you get on, and you may be able to help others by letting us know how you cope. So do drop us a line by commenting on this article – if you get a moment….

This article was written in January 2016

If you have a challenge in coping with caring for older family and friends why not Ask Lesley? Simply email us at [email protected] and we’ll aim to publish your question with a response in good time.

Meanwhile, take a look at our other stories about relationships and caring:

Dr Lesley Trenner is an Ageing Parent specialist with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to balance work and care, or cope with mid-life, family and career challenges. Sessions are available face-to-face (London) or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat. You can also visit her Facebook page.

Receive our regular newsletter with the latest news and articles by joining the family. Just use the box below to sign up.

Share this article:
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x