My mother was diagnosed with cancer, and I’ve taken on the role of primary caregiver. How can I get my siblings to help more with my mother’s care?

Dina Smith, social worker and caregiver program coordinator at CancerCare in New York City

The responsibility of caring for a loved one is not an easy one. To get support, you first need to understand the full scope of your responsibilities and identify what you can and cannot do on your own. Write down all your caregiving tasks, including emotional and practical responsibilities, such as transportation, managing medications, cooking meals and checking in on how she feels. Don’t leave anything out.

Once you have a complete list, share it with your siblings so they fully understand your role as primary caregiver. Sometimes siblings don’t offer their support because they think you’ve only taken on a couple of responsibilities. Consider inviting them to your mother’s next oncology appointment. Sometimes siblings do not understand the severity of the disease; sitting in on a medical visit may provide some clarity.

Once all of you have a handle on your mother’s needs, ask your siblings to take on specific tasks. Your siblings may not be open to hearing “You are not doing enough” or “You are not helping as much as I am.” But they may be receptive to having one or two tasks delegated to them, which allows them to help without feeling overwhelmed. 

If they are still hesitant to pitch in, plan another meeting or call to discuss how caregiving is impacting you. The demands of caregiving can lead to burnout, which can show up as fatigue, lack of motivation, sadness, irritability and trouble sleeping. Explaining your feelings and challenges may help your siblings understand that, by helping your mother, they would also be helping you.

If you have tried communicating with your siblings with compassion and they still aren’t helping in the ways you hoped, think about others who may be able to help you. Perhaps a close aunt, uncle or cousin may be more available or willing to help. Maybe friends could assist with some of your needs, such as shuttling children or picking up groceries.

No matter how these conversations go, take care of yourself as much as possible so you have the energy and motivation to help your mother. Think of the safety announcement made on every commercial flight: You must put on your own oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs. If you do not prioritize your own self-care, caring for your mother will be even more difficult.

CAREGIVING HELP // The Family Caregiver Alliance explains why sibling tensions can erupt when parents need care. // CancerCare offers free, professional support services and resources for cancer caregivers.

The expert’s response was edited for clarity and based on an interview with Kendall K. Morgan.