Of the approximately 65 million Americans who are functioning as unpaid family caregivers, there are about nine percent (or almost six million) who are not a close relation of the person for whom they’re caring, nor are they spouses or life partners.
It’s unknown how many of these folks are neighbors of the cared-for persons. With numbers as large as these, it is reasonable to expect that neighbors are playing a role in caregiving.
In some cases they are the person closest at hand so distant family members come to rely on them to check in on mom or dad. According to Susan Greenberg, culture editor of Newsweek International, small communities and community organizations in larger towns and cities are beginning to organize for neighbors to be able to care for neighbors. Through a buddy system, a neighborhood watch, an aging-in-place collective, or a senior co-op, a variety of services can be provided.
And then there are the simple neighborly relationships that turn into caregiving as one neighbor ages and becomes frail. But having a non-family member provide care has its own issues.
Boundaries need to be established at the start of the caregiving. Robert Bornstein, a psychology professor at Adelphi University and author of books on caregiving said that without the limits on what a neighbor is willing to provide, a greater level of responsibility can be expected, which can lead to resentment on the part of the caregiving neighbor.
As an example, he noted that his neighbors teamed up to shovel an older resident’s driveway in the wake of a powerful east coast storm in 2010. When three more strong storms hit, the neighbors felt obligated to continue shoveling when they had four storms worth of their own shoveling to do.
He says the challenge to establishing boundaries is to be clear about what you can and can’t do. For instance, if your duties are simply to visit your neighbor twice a week, be clear with him or her what the time limit for the visit will be. What about driving to errands or medical appointments, or doing house repairs or cleaning? The best thing you can do for both of you, according to Bornstein is to be sure that everyone involved knows what they can rely on you for.
Another issue is resentment from family members when neighbors become involved in care. “The kids may not always appreciate it when neighbors step in,” he said even when the kids don’t seem willing to be of help to their parents.
On the plus side of these arrangements is the positive impact on the quality of life for the patient that regular contact with neighbors will provide. Regular social interactions can help maintain health and happiness.
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