Caregivers and the Bystander Effect

In Articles, Articles: Kansas City Office, Articles: Salt Lake City Office by Scott Dougan

Have you ever witnessed an emergency like a car accident or a person having a seizure or other medical issue? Did you immediately jump in and assist that person in crisis? Was there a dialog in your head that said something to the effect of, “I’m sure somebody else will handle this; I mean, there are so many other people nearby that saw it too.” 

There’s a psychological phenomenon that suggests that many people in crisis are not receiving the care they need and the attention they desperately require, precisely because there are so many people nearby that assume that somebody else has it handled. It’s called the bystander effect and it’s much more common than most of us realize. The presence of this phenomenon doesn’t make us bad people for assuming somebody else will jump in so we don’t have to. No, it’s more complex than that. For the sake of this conversation, please just consider how it may be affecting you or someone you love.

When I meet with people who are serving as caregivers for a family member, there’s a very common theme that emerges. While the person is very happy to help their loved one, they’re also exhausted and frustrated. Among a whole host of feelings, they’re feeling that other family members like siblings aren’t pulling their weight in the giving of care. Generally, the others aren’t even providing close to the same level of effort being extended by the primary family caregiver. It’s as if the unspoken conversation among the siblings is, “Of course she’ll take the lead in Mom’s care; we all know she’s the responsible one!” And suddenly we have the bystander effect in action. In fact, psychologists call the outcome of the bystander effect a ‘diffusion of responsibility’. 

At its core, the bystander effect is based on a series of assumptions. These may include the feeling that one isn’t trained to help, isn’t available, or is just afraid to help or to mess something up. So while it’s really a compliment to the person who finds themselves doing the lion’s share of the care giving, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when these words are unspoken and the caregiver goes largely unappreciated and unsupported. The truth is, there’s probably a very strong sense of appreciation for the work done by the caregiver, but too often there’s no outward acknowledgment from those less inclined to – or less prepared to – offer help with the care needed.

So, what do you do if you find yourself as the unappreciated primary caregiver when you never signed up to be one? First, consider that others that appear to be standing by likely have enormous respect for you; they’ve decided that you’re the best person for the job and that’s quite a compliment. Second, speak up. To the extent that you’re comfortable doing so, tell the others who aren’t pulling their weight how you feel. Start the conversation before additional resentment builds. And when all of this has been done, consider as a group how you might find additional resources to assist you, whether through shared responsibilities that are not direct care to the loved one (like money), or hiring outside experts for some of the tasks needing to be handled. The effect of all of this is a formal acknowledgment of the work being done and some much needed relief for the person who’s carrying the majority of the weight.    

Naturally, we all stand to need care for ourselves at some point in the future. And while busy lives may prevent many of us from keeping that thought top-of-mind and helping as much as we’d like to, starting the family conversation around the care need can go a long way toward bringing down the water level for those who are stepping in and doing the work. 

So hats off to you, caregivers, but before you use yourself up in the process, consider giving others the opportunity to step up in their unique way. Talk to them candidly and often. Being a hero to someone you love is amazing, yet even heroes need help and an occasional break from the action. Heroes, help those unknowing bystanders snap out of their trance and get to work. We’ll all be better off for it.

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