How to handle family expectations of being always on my phone?
February 13, 2023 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I have three siblings: two who do not work (female), one who does (male). I (female) work full-time. I also live alone and have been dealing with a number of health issues this year, so keeping every thing afloat has been a personal challenge.

We have elderly parents who right now need a lot of care-coordination. Most of it has (with gratitude) been handled by the two non-working sibs -- but their way of communicating with us other two has been solely thru text. Some weeks, it's been 60-100 texts A DAY. And some of them, multi-paragraph texts. Stuff that would be more appropriate for and easier to digest in an email. I can't keep up. When I tried, it was an addition 3 hours a day on my phone. I don't have that kind of time in my schedule. I have repeatedly asked them to call me if it's something important - i want to participate; to help where I can - with a phone call it takes much much less time and I can still cook or unload dishes or what not. They won't call, and instead get snippy about me not texting. The same expectation / snippiness is not directed toward the male sibling. The texting sibs are also resistant to setting up family zoom calls for this stuff. I feel like this has become a power struggle over means of communication, which is pointless. In the rest of my world, I am used to the "hey, what day/time/means of communication works best for you?" interpersonal considerations. That doesn't seem to be in the skillset of my non-working siblings. Is there anything else here to consider? How would you manage this situation?
posted by Silvery Fish to Human Relations (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would miss everything in text and see if they modified their approach. I might in the meantime set a set time I would go over and help a couple of times a week, that doesn't require a discussion.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:45 AM on February 13 [10 favorites]

When I received a long text or a series of texts, I would call them. Why wait for them to call you? Forget the niceties of asking when to call, call them on your schedule. Then, either they pick up or the negotiation begins.
posted by JSM at 7:47 AM on February 13 [19 favorites]

It's hard to enforce boundaries, but it seems like you need to do so. Make sure you express the rules you have for contacting you clearly, and when those rules are violated, delete/ignore the messages. Don't invest your own emotions in trying to control how others respond to your needs. Leverage the power of "no."
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:48 AM on February 13

I can’t speak to the aspect of the female relatives not treating the male relative the same, but I do think it’s fair that the people dealing with the majority of the care coordination dictate the terms of communication. I have 3 siblings and when my (local) dad went to urgent care it was important that things were done through text so that everyone got the same information and at the same time. While a call is quicker for the recipient, a call for me actually meant a call to every person already in the group text at the same time that I was trying to juggle updates from my dad and medical professionals AND be on the phone to calm down my mom.

Additionally you’re not able to make calls in many doctors offices, so a text makes more sense.

I realize this is coming at a time when you are dealing with your own health stuff and also has a gendered component, but they may really be texting out of need, not out of a power play
posted by raccoon409 at 7:51 AM on February 13 [39 favorites]

Ooof, we are in similar situations except I'm the frontline sib who sends 100s of messages a day and the other sibs can't always keep up.

It just is easier especially if there are multiple people in the mix to send one text than have to replicate the message in a phone call.

In your shoes I'd probably call one of your siblings - maybe twice a day, same time everyday, like a morning check-in and an evening check-in. Don't wait for them to call you especially if they don't want to.
posted by unicorn chaser at 7:51 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]

Two things:
- The next time this become a point of friction, explain "I have told you before I can't keep up with these high-frequency text messages. I want to be involved, but just can't be involved in that way." Repeat ad nauseam. Stick to the script.
- Call your folks and let them know the situation, if you haven't already.
posted by adamrice at 7:51 AM on February 13

In the rest of my world, I am used to the "hey, what day/time/means of communication works best for you?" interpersonal considerations

Really, everyone always uses your preferred communication method? That is surprising and I think it is unreasonable in this situation. As racoon said above, there are so many reasons that texts are better from the standpoint of the people actually juggling the care.

Can you come up with a symbol (such as a **[message]**) for things they need a prompt response on, and then otherwise recognize that you may not read all the updates? Can you set up text to speech on your messages and listen while doing your chores?
posted by Narrow Harbor at 8:00 AM on February 13 [13 favorites]

I guess my question would be if these texts really require a response or active input from you? They can send 60-100 messages, if they want to that's fine. But you don't have to respond to 60-100 messages. Give yourself a short window mid morning and one mid afternoon where you scan what they have sent. So they get the 'read' ticks and should there really be anything somewhat time sensitive you'll pick it up in under 8 hrs. They can share whatever information they feel the need to share. They can see you're reading regularly. But they will have to accept that you will only respond every now and then or if you spot anything that needs you to weigh in.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:00 AM on February 13 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate all of these responses. It's helpful to see the many sides, and that this is a shared concern. Please keep them coming. unicorn chaser - I appreciate your view from the other side. Thank you.

FWIW - the two who manage most of the care want to be involved in all help/decisions, and I appreciate that. I've tried calling - one sibling refuses to take phone calls. The other frequently doesn't answer, or isn't willing to schedule a mutually available time to talk. And yes, sometimes they direct a question to me specifically, and then seemingly get frustrated that I don't respond in their time frame but also don't reach out via phone.
posted by Silvery Fish at 8:05 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Certainly on WhatsApp and almost certainly on other texting services you can mute notifications for particular groups for periods of time (or forever). I don't think you can control how they communicate, but you can control how you respond, and you can sit down a couple of times a day to treat the communication like an email.

In parallel with this it might be good to tell siblings that this is what you have to do, and set up a way of them letting you know the truly urgent time-critical stuff so you reliably receive the info when you need it.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:07 AM on February 13

Response by poster: Can you set up text to speech on your messages and listen while doing your chores?

Is there a way to do that? I didn't know that was possible.
posted by Silvery Fish at 8:08 AM on February 13

As a starting point, I do think the people providing the care get to dictate to an extent how the communication happens. The people actually handling this care coordination get to determine the best way for them to provide information, if it is in fact just information and not specific things they're asking from you. When I think about this from their perspective, the idea of setting up calls with four siblings, or a weekly info-dump of information to everyone via zoom, sounds much more exhausting than texting information as it comes.

If they're asking you to do specific actions, I think it's okay to tell them that because you can't keep up with a flood of texts in real-time, they need to make specific requests another way - calls, or emails, or texts with a specific keyword you can see quickly when you scan, or whatever. Otherwise you may miss things. Armed with that information, they can do what they want with it and decide when they want your help badly enough to deal with less-preferred communication methods to get it.

In the meanwhile I'd be looking into whether there's some text-to-email service you can use that would automatically forward these texts into emails since you say that would be better for you, and I would also be setting aside a specific daily or twice-weekly time to skim through the last chunk of emails for important information.
posted by Stacey at 8:08 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]

You could say "I can't handle this volume of texts any more. From now on, I will be deleting all texts without reading them. If you need my input, CALL ME"
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 8:12 AM on February 13

I think Narrow Harbor and koahiatamadl have it. Elder care & coordination is a huge task and making phone calls after/while doing it does not seem reasonable to me. If you tell them upfront that you'll check messages at X & X times (maybe 3-4 times a day?), and to call if it is urgent, it seems to me you've covered your ground, even if they don't call. At some point you have to do your job and not be reading texts.

If you want to address the gender angle and they are hassling you to respond in the group text, maybe you could try "I am waiting for Brother to weigh in on this." "I would like Brother to help decide."

This may go beyond what you are asking but when I observed this work in my parents' generation, when the sibling with a job came and "took a weekend" with Mom or Dad, the caretaker siblings found it much easier to explain what was needed because the working sibling had seen the deterioration of their parents' abilities first hand. However, from your description your parents may have lesser needs at this point and this idea is not yet relevant.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:15 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]

Depending on the tech you are using, or could start using, there might be a good way for you to read and respond to these texts on a device other than your phone.

Like you, I would really rather email than text for anything beyond the most basic communications. But I'm able to deal with people who prefer texting by using a tablet with keyboard for longer text discussions, and a PC / browser for longer WhatsApp discussions.
posted by Perplexity at 8:20 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

As a person who recently went through having to help coordinate care for an elderly person, you're honestly lucky they're got the bandwidth to keep you in the loop this much. Asking that they dedicate even more of their time to it in the form of scheduled phone/zoom calls is really too much to ask. Just skim the text thread every few hours and see if there's anything that needs a response.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:25 AM on February 13 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Again -- the feedback is very helpful. Thank you. As an aside, y'all have very different lives than me it seems. Every few hours or 3-4 times a day isn't an option for me, but I can do daily.
posted by Silvery Fish at 8:31 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Yeah, 3-4 hours to read texts means that you’re probably taking longer to read them it takes them to write. That seems like an unusually long time reading and I wonder whether your sibs understand that it takes you that long. It might be reasonable to ask them to call you IF they need direct input from you? Or send you a text directly outside the group chat, where you can have a special notification on it that will get your attention.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:36 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

Every few hours or 3-4 times a day isn't an option for me, but I can do daily.

Is there a rhythm you can take advantage of? Like, they usually have morning appointments so you can read texts at 2pm and respond in time for your siblings to call the office with a decision?

You have my sympathy, reading 60-100 texts in one sitting sounds like a terrible time.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:37 AM on February 13

sometimes they direct a question to me specifically, and then seemingly get frustrated that I don't respond in their time frame but also don't reach out via phone.

Do what you can. I find that people who have more control over their time or who have only ever had jobs where the workload was so light that they could 'schedule start times for the upcoming pony club event', 'do the books for the widget club', 'plan the detailed itinerary for a 3 week vacation' they have coming up can't imagine that some people are back to back at work to the extent where they have to 'schedule' time to grab a glass of water or use the bathroom. So perhaps explain your constraints just once if you haven't done so already so they know you're not ignoring them deliberately. You just can't be on your phone all day. If it's an emergency they need to not bury that in the 80 other messages that day.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:38 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

Call them, frequently. I know you rely on texting but I find it difficult to keep up, just checking in to to see how everything's going and see how you're doing. I know caretaking can be exhausting; thanks for everything you do. Find a way to include a compliment or expression of thanks. Your sisters sound like they need recognition. Caretaking is the least glamorous thing, it's really a ton of work, they deserve it and it just smooths things.

Try to spend 15-30 minutes/ day going through the texts, and responding by email with a very brief summary cc:ing all 3 siblings. I'm glad Mom's appt. went well, and Dad's BP sounds stable. Did you 2 really get them to listen to Beyonce and chairdance a bit? Kudos. As always, Jay and Pat, you are just wonderful for taking such good care of them. This is a fair bit of time, but it seems fair to at least skim their texts, which probably include a lot of chitchat and minor logistics in addition to information about the folks. Ignore all commentary about your lack of response to texts. If they ask, tell them again that texting is not your preferred communication method, but that you're doing your best to keep up. Ask your brother to do the summary/response some days, that's only fair. you and your brother can agree to be allies and if one reads an urgent text, alerting the other. If you miss an emergency because they texted you, knowing you are unable to keep up that's on them.

They have a preferred communication style that is useful to them in the day to day stuff; and I think they get to choose that, though I agree about the annoyance level. If you calmly respond in your preferred styles, they are the ones choosing to ignore communication. Avoid the control issue by ignoring it. Once a week, text them and tell them what evening or weekend time you're available, and ask them what errands need to be run, housekeeping yard work. If they don't assign a task, just go over and clean bathrooms, wash windows, watch a movie with the folks. Part of the work of caretaking is the logistics of assigning tasks. Or just say you'd like to have a meal with the parents and would like to take something over Saturday for lunch, maybe they'd like to join you?
posted by theora55 at 8:38 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

Most of it has (with gratitude) been handled by the two non-working sibs

Then why are there 60-100 texts per day that you are required to answer in a timely manner? When my mom took care of her parents in their final years, she didn't have a cell phone, and she called her brother a few times a year. I appreciate that perhaps your parents situation is more complex, but their expectation that you will be following the minutiae of your parents' daily life is unreasonable and unproductive for everyone - you can't keep up, and it means you are likely to miss the urgent texts - nobody wins here.

I would enforce a boundary here - you only want them to text you about matters that require a timely response from you. Presumably you see them in-person with some regularity? That's when they are free to fill you in on everything, or not. I'd also make a point of showing your appreciation for the work they're doing - they might not be employed, but they are working. Regularly get them treats - chocolate, flowers, wine, or whatever consumables they prefer - as an acknowledgment of the favor they are doing you.
posted by coffeecat at 8:54 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

Do your non-working siblings have young children at home? I do, and I often find it very difficult to talk on the phone - I get interrupted constantly and my kids are sometimes loud enough that even if they’re not talking TO me, they still make it hard for me to focus (I personally can focus on the written word regardless of the noise level, but I cannot focus on a conversation if there are other conversations happening loudly near me). If that’s the case for your siblings, talking on the phone, esp spontaneously, might just be really difficult for them.

Thinking about options that might work for all of you - it’s possible to text to an email; maybe it would work if your siblings texted all non-urgent things to your email - maybe even a specific one you set up so you don’t get inundated with 100 separate emails per day - and only texted your phone for urgent questions? Then, you could catch up via email once a day, and you’d be more likely to see urgent texts sooner.
posted by maleficent at 8:58 AM on February 13 [6 favorites]

When I was the one bearing the workload for caring for my elderly grandparents and communicating with 3 others, 1 aunt and 2 uncles, it was hard for me to balance the communication needs of everyone (too much? too little?) plus my life. It felt better to overcommunicate rather than under. Last year was one of the most stressful in my life when I took care of liquidating their house and my grandma passed and there was the memorial service and cemetery arrangements plus the rest of my life, I still think about it almost every day. Over the years, my one uncle (1 job, no kids) would complain that we texted during his work hours. It was also often during my work hours and my hours of caring for my teenagers and my house. Sometimes I took meetings at the nursing home or made calls about my kids' care from the nursing home. Eventually I just took my uncle off the text threads so he did not receive any. I guess that worked out better for him.
posted by RoadScholar at 9:04 AM on February 13 [8 favorites]

Elder care is so hard for everyone, in some ways harder for the person in your position. I didn't read every response but my recommendation as a person who did more of the direct care is to propose a realistic plan and share it with the group. To me the most important thing is that you stick with the realistic commitment you make, rather than 'failing' at doing the level of communication and work that you actually can't do!

I suggest a group message something like this:

"I so appreciate all the work you are doing and I want to do justice to your questions. Unfortunately, I just can't multi-task effectively so I want to give dedicated time and thought to your messages. I can commit to reading through the text threads every night around 7PM my time and will respond then. I've also set some time aside on Friday afternoons to make follow up calls during business hours if needed. I may respond by email because I am much more able to gather my thoughts and communicate more complex ideas that way. But I can give you a heads up by text if I've sent an email.

If urgent questions arise during the day, feel free to give me a call.

Thank you again for all your work for our parents."

posted by latkes at 9:23 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]

Is a family Slack channel an option? That is text-like, but might allow them to sort their writing into "need response now" and/or other different categories of updates and topics, and let you read & search it more digestibly.
posted by Dashy at 9:24 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

This dynamic is essentially ever friend group or hobby group that I have been a part of. Your situation is obviously more important than scheduling improv practice but same flow applies. Some people like to over communicate and other people either just want the details or just want to hear about what they are responsible for. I'd say once a quarter someone in the group has to pipe up that they don't have an office job and thus can't be on their phone at the moment's notice.

You may want to see if you can see what works for your brother to see if that strategy can help and as presenting a unified front on requesting changes to the overall communications patterns.
posted by mmascolino at 9:25 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Eldercare is very stressful. The amount of day to day work is hard. When I was the primary contact for my grandparents for the 4 years that they were in assisted living and eventually nursing homes and memory care, I regularly spent at least an hour on the phone every day with their various caregivers, pharmacies, doctor's offices. I received calls when they were out of medications, needed new medications, fell in the middle of the night just to give a couple examples. I talked to my grandma with dementia sometimes several times every day telling her the same thing again and again. It was very stressful in addition to my normal life. I still feel guilty about the many times when I was driving one of my kids somewhere and interrupted our conversation to take a call from hospice or another caregiver or one of my grandparents. I also paid their bills and did their taxes and kept everything going. I communicated with the insurance companies and opened their mail.
posted by RoadScholar at 9:41 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

If they sometimes have time-sensitive questions for you specifically, could they send it to you directly and not in the group chat? You may be able to set a custom bleepy notification for your one-on-one conversations and set the group text to something quieter or even silent, if this works well enough that you can read the group thread asynchronously.

Some group chat apps let you tag a particular person while remaining in the same group chat, which could give you a bleepy notification just for texts where you're tagged. This might be easier or harder to set up, depending on the app.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:54 AM on February 13

I'd also try to migrate towards something that isn't text messages. For most people, text messages are a phone-only thing, but anything else from Slack, Discord, Teams, WhatsApp, Signal, etc. usually have desktop clients (in addition to mobile) where you can have a real monitor and keyboard, and allows specific notifications for just your name. I know this doesn't solve the people problems though, but it can make viewing large numbers of text messages less aggravating.

You may also try to view your text messages on a computer, if you have both an iPhone and a Mac, or if you have Android you can use Messages on web.
posted by meowzilla at 10:15 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I just tested this out on my iPhone - go to "notifications", "announce notifications" and turn it on under "messages". It will read to you text messages when they come in (I did this while doing the dishes and could respond verbally back to have a text sent back). This may not be ideal if you can't be interrupted by messages, but might help so you can continue to do whatever you are doing if it is otherwise mundane. To have text messages read to you at a different time (like later in the day), look into accessibility options for your phone for people who are blind - I've seen several suggestions online but haven't tested them myself.

If you don't have an iPhone, look for accessibility options for whatever phone you have. Reading text messages allowed should be an option.
posted by Toddles at 10:28 AM on February 13

Frankly, I would just tell them outright: "I have job to do. SO UNLESS IT'S URGENT, I will only read your text OUTSIDE of my working hours. If it's urgent, you know my number. "

Then if they act uppity, "I told you I have a job. You expect me to take time off my job just to keep up with UN-important stuff?"
posted by kschang at 10:33 AM on February 13

The real problem and danger here is that the format and volume they are sending to you does not discriminate between levels of urgency. If it's something you really need to see, or they really need your input on, how can you find or notice it within the other hundred texts? It sounds like they are not doing any sort of filtering or sorting of their priorities for communication. How much of this is then asking for emotional support, how much is soliciting input on careful medical decisions, how much is just routine? If they don't bother to sort the needles from the haystack, or as another commenter suggested using *asterisks* or such to denote something time sensitive or critical, then you will miss something important. You'll just have to repeat to them: "I DO want to help and be involved. Please use your time and effort to help me be involved. Flooding me with extraneous momentary information is getting in the way of that. Yes, many of the texts you send are not critical. I am afraid that I will miss something important because you are not taking, just a little breather of a moment, to decide whether the 107th text you've sent today is truly important, and whether I can do anything to help you about it. Stop leaving the sorting to me and my brain on the receiving end. You need to do some filtering, for my sanity."
posted by panhopticon at 10:58 AM on February 13

If you use WhatsApp, you can read and write online at I quite often use this method when I'm trying to work and can't be picking my phone up every few minutes.
posted by Orkney Vole at 11:04 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Do they actually need your response? Are you part of an urgent decision making core? Do you know how to search the texts if you do want info? This might be the rare-sh case where different text groups are needed.

We have had times when we've had to rather bluntly remind family members that the main caregiver is not their personal assistant to provide them updates on demand; it's up to each member to monitor/search the "family" text chain for specific issues rather than expecting the main caregiver to repeat themselves while risking leaving out pertinent info. And sibs who couldn't accept that had to take a step back and realize they would always be a step or two behind the decision making process.

Ultimately we ended up with a very long "family" text chain that includes all interested parties/sibs and mostly is from the major caregiver and covers all issues everyone needs to be on the same page about. The main caregiver sib then will have side texts with specific sibs on specific issues depending on expertise (legal, medical, financial etc) and then update the main chain as needed.
posted by beaning at 12:22 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]

It might be useful to encourage them to call you for important things by calling them about *important thing* when they text it to you rather than texting back.

I absolutely understand your frustration but, in the context of what they are doing, I can also understand their desire to keep everyone in the loop in a way that works for them. The number of texts does seem very excessive but, if you can get them to use an alternative for things that are actually important, the flood of updates won't be as critical.
posted by dg at 1:31 PM on February 13

Re: listening to texts, not sure what phone you have but here’s the instructions for iPhone. iPhone also has Voice Control, which I use for arthritis reasons but which could work really well for your use case if you’re able to put your phone in view on the counter!
posted by brook horse at 3:29 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I assume that the two involved siblings are using the chat primarily to coordinate between each other and to CC you and other sibling in as an FYI, mixed in with the occasional "Silvery Fish and other sibling, we need your input". This works for them, because they need to read everything anyway, but not for you, as you have to wade through a bunch of info you didn't need, or is now redundant.

I do think that if they are the siblings on the ground, they are the ones that the communication has to work for. However, they're going to have to realise that you can't read 3 hours or texts at work, and alter the communication if they need input from you during work time. Not sure how you do this, but I do suggest putting the chat on mute during work time and only check it at lunch time/after work. A quick "I haven't got time to read all of this right now, is there anything you need me to do?" after a large number of messages during work time is a reasonable response I think.

One of my housemates put our group chat on mute, which I understand as the other two housemates occasionally go crazy with the gif's. But it's annoying to me as she misses things, and I have to remember to message her directly if I need to contact her urgently.

If you're on Facebook messenger, there is a way to "pin" a message which I've started using for bills etc. You could ask them to pin important messages that they need you to respond to. Or you can ask them to text you separately with super important things. Or, set up an "URGENT Parent Info" only chat.
posted by kjs4 at 8:37 PM on February 14

If they sometimes have time-sensitive questions for you specifically, could they send it to you directly and not in the group chat?

That was my thought. That, or marking the urgent messages with some specific brightly-colored emoji so it can stand out when you skim or scroll (like the megaphone 📣 emoji that were used on this site to make the recent fundraising posts stand out). Might not work if these messages use a lot of emoji in the first place.
posted by trig at 2:15 AM on February 17

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