One of the most common types of stories we hear about caregiving at The Conversation Project is the “seagull effect.” When an out-of-town sibling swoops in for a visit, thinking they know best and upending plans, they can create a messy situation (as seagulls often do). I’ve been teaching others about this — we even created a video about this scenario. Yet this past year, it hit me like a brick… I am the seagull!
My husband and I live overseas, while back in the US my middle sister has been living with and caring for our dad for the last several years. On our trips home, I would swoop in on visits and inject what I thought was best for supporting Dad. But just because I have some ideas, it doesn’t mean that I know best.
It’s easy to swoop without realizing it. I’ve caught myself saying, “I know how to do this from my experience at work, let me tell you how…” Sound familiar? I found myself trying to solve various pieces of the puzzle that came up about Dad’s care and wishes as a way to help. What I realized, though, was that it would be more helpful to take the time to understand what my sister was going through personally and as a caregiver. Instead of jumping in to offer solutions, I learned to listen and rephrase things.
Importantly, sometimes intervening may be necessary when safety is at risk. In our family, though, that wasn’t the case. Sometimes I was trying to optimize something from being 95 percent good to 97 percent good in my view. Often that’s not worth the risk of relationship damage. The following tips may help. Thank you to my sister for sharing her perspectives here.
If, like me, you are not the day-to-day caregiver, here are some tips to avoid swooping:
- Above all else, listen. Listen, listen, and then listen some more to the primary caregiver. Give space for them to be heard and understood, not judged. Start with asking, not telling. Offering one more “helpful” idea may overload their already full plate.
- I realized I was cutting my sister off in the middle of her explanations. I like to cut to the chase, but she needed to be heard, validated, and respected. This was about understanding all that she has been through as a caregiver, allowing time for processing and sharing.
- When possible, don’t wait to talk in person. Before a visit, learn what the caregiver has been going through and what the person you all care about has been telling them. Ask the caregiver what form of communication works best.
- My sister notes that keeping us up to date on my Dad’s shifts and changes is one of the most important things to her, yet she often just doesn’t have the time or energy.
- Ask what matters to the person you all care for and about. Gently ask questions to understand. Start by asking the primary caregiver what they may know already from recent conversations. Try some of these phrases:
- “Since I haven’t been here in person, I’d love to understand what is most important to [Dad, Mom, sibling, etc.] when it comes to care. Have you all had a chance to talk about what’s important to them? If not, would it be helpful if I ask?”
- “How can I be helpful to you so we can understand and act on what’s most important to them?”
- “I know what I would want for them, but let’s ask what they really want, and what matters most to them when it comes to care and what a good day may look like. What are they telling us that maybe we haven’t really listened to?”
- Understand the challenges the primary caregiver may face. Even if they choose to serve in this role, their day-to-day and life in general may feel like it’s not entirely their own.
- My sister explains, “I have the freedom to choose to be here for dad, I do choose it; that doesn’t make it easy. I have traded a lot of my free time and ability to follow other pursuits to be here caretaking.”
- Follow their lead on how to help. Delegating tasks may not be easy. For example, caregiving carries an emotional burden, something we can’t necessarily take off the primary caregiver’s plate. Acknowledge that you are aware of this. Talk about ways you can help them feel lighter.
- My sister notes she’d love to be able to ask my oldest sister and I to do specific tasks so she could get the help and we could feel like we have been helpful. However, she notes “so much of the work is all the little, day-to-day, on-site things; so much of it is the emotional burden.”
- Understand where they’re coming from. Past experiences may be influencing the day-to-day caregiver’s decisions or reactions to what you say or do. Find out what ideas they have already considered. After, share how you are approaching things in a way that feels supportive, not defensive.
- During one of our conversations, I offered some ideas but I didn’t feel like my sister was listening. When we dug deeper, she shared her past experiences of being told what to do without being heard. We reset our conversation. I asked for her ideas and said I had some suggestions, if she wanted them.
- Make it clear you’re on the same team. If you have more than one potential seagull (such as two out-of-town siblings), be aware that the primary caregiver may feel outnumbered. It’s important to all provide opportunities to share together.
- Acknowledgement goes a long way. Perhaps what’s needed most is saying how much the day-in, day-out work of the primary caregiver matters to you.
- Spend time together. Not every visit has to be full of deep conversations or solving issues that may arise. Caregivers may want a break – and to get out of the house – rather than more time on the emotionally draining subject of caregiving.
- My sister said, “It’s nice when you all are here to take my mind off the subject, going out to fun meals that feel like a mini vacation.”
This piece offers firm advice on the subject: Local sister deflects requests to do more for aging mom. And, this blog shares additional ways to show appreciation to a caregiver.
If you are the primary caregiver and might have a seagull in your life, here are some things to remember that may help mitigate the swooping:
- Most of the potential seagulls in your life truly care. They may not show their care in the way you want them to. If that is the case, talk with them to share how you feel and how they might be helpful.
- They may feel guilty. They aren’t there to help with the day-to-day caregiving, and their advice may feel to them like they are helping. Perhaps tell them that you can see how much the visit matters to your shared person (or to you) and that that’s help itself.
- Keep communication lines open as much as you are able. Discuss the latest updates before a visit. While it takes time and energy, keeping them looped in on the latest conversations with those you are caring for helps to keep everyone on the same page. It can make visits or tough decisions smoother.
For both potential seagulls and primary caregivers, consider these communication tips:
- Find ways to communicate that work. If phone calls aren’t easy because of time zones, schedules, or energy, try text messages, audio messages, email, or apps. Tone isn’t always obvious in text, so be careful how things are interpreted and assume good intent.
- Choose a comfortable spot. When you are together in person and need a common understanding of what is happening with your person, consider the setting for your Some ideas: set up a happy hour, make a coffee/tea/munchie spread, or pick a time for a group walk.
- Consider each other’s perspectives. They are all valid. Those who aren’t there on a daily basis may see things that the primary caregiver doesn’t, or bring an alternate perspective that could be helpful. Perhaps the primary caregiver is stuck in the weeds of caregiving. At the same time, the primary caregiver doesn’t have the luxury of leaving the situation. They see things on a day-to-day basis that others do not. It might take time to explain what others aren’t aware of.
- Keep in mind the other demands in each other’s lives. Perhaps a job, family obligation, or health issues is challenging. You (they) may not have shared everything that’s going on out of concern for burdening each other.
Give yourselves and each other grace. Caregiving is hard. Start talking, early and often, with each other and with the person you all care about to learn what matters to them and how you can best support them and each other. One of these three guides could help: Conversation Starter Guide for talking about what’s important, What Matters to Me Workbook for people with serious illness, or For Caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of Dementia.
What else would you add? Share your comments, tips, and ideas below and then send this blog to a potential swooper or primary caregiver in your life if it’s been helpful!
Patty Webster leads community engagement for The Conversation Project and is an Improvement Advisor and Faculty member of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.
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