Sharing Responsibilities

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2021

Often, family and friends share caregiving responsibilities when their loved one has cancer. Working together to provide care for a person with cancer can have positive and negative impacts. Knowing common caregiving problems beforehand and learning strategies to work through them can help you navigate this challenging time.

Sometimes, taking care of a loved one can bring people together. Family members and friends can rally together to provide mutual support to one another. But caregiving can also bring back old conflicts or create new ones. These conflicts can make it difficult for caregivers to work together.

It is important for caregivers to talk with each other often and be honest about how they are feeling. Talking about stress and how you are coping with the responsibility of caregiving can help. People that express their feelings in healthy ways and work together can solve problems more easily. Trying to solve problems alone and focusing on disagreements can create tension.

Common sources of caregiving conflict

It may be helpful to remember that this is a distressing time for everyone and some conflict is normal. Caring for a loved one with cancer creates new responsibilities and emotions that you or others may not have had to deal with before. Caregivers may have different priorities or are only able to devote a certain amount of time to caregiving. However, resolving conflict is also important. Recognizing the source of the conflict is a good first step. Common sources of caregiving conflict include:

Unequal division of caregiving duties. It is typical for 1 person to take the lead in caring for the person who has cancer. If they are managing many of the caregiving tasks alone, it can lead to stress and resentment. Others may also feel left out.

Disagreement on caregiving decisions. There can be different opinions about financial, medical, and/or daily caregiving decisions.

Different coping styles. People handle their caregiving tasks and cope with their feelings in different ways.

Falling into old roles. Sometimes, old relationship patterns between parents and children, siblings, or even friends can resurface when caregiving. For example, siblings may deal with conflicts similar to when they were growing up. Parents and children can also have a hard time with the change in roles that comes when adult children become caregivers of a parent.

Stress, grief, and anxiety about the health of your loved one can all make conflict more likely. It is important to learn how to work together with the other caregivers so that you can provide the best support to your loved one. And, it may be helpful for everyone to learn about the basics of caregiving.

How can caregivers work together?

Although resolving conflicts can be difficult and awkward, it is important to talk about issues as they come up. If you do not address conflict in the moment, it can be more difficult to address it later on. Resentment can also build over time.

Here are some suggestions to help you work with the rest of your caregiving support network:

  • When possible, involve the person with cancer. Your loved one should be a central part of all of their own care-related issues whenever possible.

  • Expect and accept different opinions and coping styles among caregivers.

  • Find a way to communicate regularly with the team about your loved one's current needs and changes in the schedule, such as an email or text chain.

  • Do not be afraid to ask for and accept help with caregiving tasks.

  • Be as specific as possible when asking for help, such as "Mom needs a ride to and from her weekly treatment appointment for 6 weeks, every Monday at 1pm" or "A prescription needs to be picked up by 7pm today at the drugstore on Main Street."

  • Try to be grateful for help from others, even if it is not perfect.

  • Take care of your own physical and emotional health so you can better take care of others.

  • Keep in mind that you are all working towards the same goal.

  • Consider hiring home care services, including "respite care", when there are gaps in coverage or the main caregiver needs a break. Respite care is temporary help for caregivers.

Strategies to share caregiving responsibilities

It might help to come up with a plan for how to share caregiving responsibilities with the family and friends who will be helping. Suggestions for how to share caregiving responsibilities include:

Ask for volunteers when assigning caregiving tasks. Think about each person's strengths, abilities, lifestyle, and schedule. Reach out to each person and let them know there are many ways to help.

Be flexible. Caregiving duties change week to week and even daily. Communicate these changes, with details. Encourage other caregivers to pitch in when needed.

Get additional help. Find help from other friends, relatives, and volunteer groups. Consider asking someone on the health care team, such as a social worker, for recommendations for community resources that can help with caregiving duties.

Use online tools. There are many online tools you can use to plan tasks and communicate centrally. This could include a group chat, group calendar, or online communities that can help you find support.

To help you plan and work together, ASCO Answers Guide to Caregiving (PDF) provides a chart to keep track of who is available to help with daily or weekly caregiving tasks.

Why are regular caregiver meetings helpful?

Scheduling regular meetings can encourage all caregivers to share issues and concerns. These meetings can be in person or online. Online meetings may be especially helpful if everyone does not live in the same town. During these meetings, everyone should make an effort to listen to each other and share their honest opinions. This can also be a time to share updates from the doctor and talk about what level of caregiving may be needed over time.

Group counseling for caregivers

Some caregivers may need professional help, such as counseling, to resolve their differences. In counseling, caregivers talk about their problems and receive advice from a trained mental health professional. A counselor can help caregivers find answers to focused and current problems.

By working together, addressing conflicts, and getting the support and help they need, caregivers can provide quality care with the least possible amount of problems.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • Will my loved one need help at home during or after their cancer treatment?

  • What types of tasks could my loved one need help with during this time? For how long?

  • Could this level of care change over time?

  • Are there services at this hospital or center that help support family caregivers?

  • Is there a social worker or another professional I could talk with about finding help with caregiving?

  • Who can I talk with if I'm feeling overwhelmed or having difficulties with caregiving duties?

Related Resources

How Cancer Affects Family Life

Talking With Family and Friends

When You and Your Family Differ on Treatment Choices

If You Have Self-Doubt When Caring for a Loved One with Cancer

ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Effective Caregiving at Home (PDF)

More Information

AARP: Caregiving Resources

CancerCare: Caregiving

Family Caregiver Alliance: Holding a Family Meeting

National Alliance for Caregiving

The free ASCO Answers Guide to Caring for a Loved One With Cancer includes practical tips, advice for communicating with family and the health care team, and worksheets to help track medications and coordinate caregiving tasks. Download this guide as a printable PDF in English (44 pages) or in Spanish (40 pages).