Three Types of Family Caregivers: The Dishrag, The Bossypants and the Backseat Driver

Taking care of other people in our lives is hard. Typically, there is no pay. There is no recognition. Usually your call to service comes without warning, or understanding of what will be required of you.

Stress reverberates. New situations pose challenges to competency, capacity, bandwidth and flexibility.

As parents, there are moments when we really do not enjoy our job at all. The meteoric rise of the kitschy bedtime book, “Go the F*CK to Sleep” is a perfect example. The acts of service as parents are well understood, discussed and accepted in society.

 But caring for our parents is not discussed or understood as much as parenting our young children. It is quite probable you will be taking care of an adult you love in your life. Helping them through cancer, a surgery, or a long running medical illness. And it is hard. Sometimes we are patient and present and kind. Other times we are stressed, irritated, frustrated and scared.

 It is also not fun to be a functioning adult, and suddenly have to allow someone to care for you- particularly your adult children. It is scary and overwhelming to face the realities of physical decline, and sometimes the stress brings out the worst. Having to accept care from those you love while trying to reconcile having your life out of control sucks no matter your age.

 The stories of unexpected caregiving are typical. Life is fine and running at the usual pace, and then Dad falls. He breaks his hip. The world stops to get to the ER, overnight watch, discharge and then juggling visits to the rehab center for weeks. Mom is undergoing signs of dementia and no one knows what to do. She has no long-term care insurance. Grandma is basically healthy, but has a tremor and can no longer drive. She can’t afford assisted living, so she is moving into the kid’s empty bedroom.

 And so it goes.  Lives turn upside down. Unexpected money is spent, time is taken off work, stress and worry interrupt sleep, and life turns into a frenzied fog. 

This is the reality for tens of millions. The term “sandwich generation” refers to those adults anywhere from the from the 30s to the 70’s who are still responsible for children as they are growing up, as well as assisting with the needs of aging parents.

When under stress, people tend to act in certain patterns. Some are hyper nurturers, others are great at “fixing” everything for those they love, and some simply become overwhelmed and manage at a distance.

 When faced with caring for an older parent, three different archetypes tend to appear fairly consistently.  Maybe you will recognize yourself or someone you know in each.

The Dishrag. The dishrag tends to be a highly sensitive person. They may have had a lot of responsibility growing up, and are hyper-nurturers. Often driven by guilt, they are the first on the scene, manage the food, rides, housekeeping and getting to the CVS for the supplies. They will run themselves ragged over making sure everyone is settled before picking up their head. They often fall apart later when the crisis is over.

The Bossy Pants. This tends to be a leader and high driver personality who manages stress by seeking structure and organization. They are the ones who will quiz and challenge the medical staff to be sure they understand, get all the reports and manage the schedules of those providing care. They tend to also focus on the tasks for their charge more than their feelings- making sure the check list is complete before they can focus on anything emotional.

The Backseat Driver. This tends to be the person in the family who was the black sheep, or least involved in the day to day family life. Maybe they moved away at a young age, and have the least day to day interaction with the family. Often under stress, there is a desire to make up for lost time. This may manifest in trying to second guess why decisions have been made or tread on territory that is already covered. They can be helpful, but often don’t know how to be. Often avoiding highly emotional confrontations is a part of being distant.

 Can you picture the scene of these three siblings around the bedside of their parent at a hospice bed? Caregiving tasks are stressful. It is overwhelming and exhausting and scary. Often siblings and family members struggle to manage their roles.

Yet, often the fights come down to not recognizing each person’s ability to handle stress. It is difficult to give care and difficult to receive care. A little compassion, empathy and understanding can go a long way.

 For today’s Words of Wisdom, take a moment to determine your caregiving style as well as those around you. Recognize neither is better than the other, and if managed with awareness and compassion, each can be highly valuable.

Dr. Roger Landry is one of our favorite thought leaders. A no bullshit kind of guy, he is a physician who worked on patients like Chuck Yager and is an expert on aging. His book, “Live Long, Die Short,” is a must read for reorienting your perspective about living life to the fullest until the final moments. His organization, “Masterpiece Living” is dedicated to helping everyone understand the dynamics of aging and to flourish.

Enjoy a short clip from Dr. Landry: 

To learn more about aging, caregiving and longevity, check out our “Learn, Love & Leverage Aging” course. Designed for life long learners, as well as those seeking general continuing education credit, these short interviews are timely, engaging, relevant and flow like a Netflix series. You will learn more about yourself, improve your mindset about aging, gain important skills about caring for others, as well as receive a global ‘Who’s Who’ overview of the most pressing issues of today.



kari henley