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Has Your Role as Fixer or Caretaker Left You in Need of Care?

Being the one person in the family who seemingly keeps it all together.

Key points

  • There is often one individual in a family, a "fixer," who is expected to solve problems or take care of everything.
  • The demands of being a fixer can take a toll on a person.
  • Building a community of fixers and caregivers can help lessen the burden placed on any one individual.

Most families have one: someone who takes it upon him or herself to solve everyone’s problems. An elderly relative needs transportation to doctors’ appointments, a college-age child needs to find a place to live near the summer internship, the car needs its yearly inspection, and the accountant needs documents for the tax returns. Whatever has to be done, there is an individual, a fixer, who will solve the problems, i.e., the person who will take care of everything.

Often the role extends to taking care of chronic problems, such as an adult child who is unable to sustain a job or a permanent relationship. The child is allowed to move back home; a new job is found; the fixer fixed the problem, again. A family member or friend takes on more commitments than can be met, and continually calls upon the fixer to meet those obligations. A friend complained about her adult daughter phoning frequently when she, the daughter, couldn’t pick her child up at day care.

“She even calls me when the dog has to go to the vet for his annual shots or to take the car to get the tags renewed. I am her backup when some scheduling conflict prevents her from doing these things herself.“ She sighed and continued, ”But I wonder whether I have created someone who assumes I will always be there to fix things.”

Occasionally the role of the fixer merges into the role of a caregiver. Typically a family member becomes dependent on another because of neurological trauma, like a fall or a stroke, or progressive neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Not only is the fixer/caretaker required to handle the logistical needs that include home health care, physical therapy, doctor’s appointments, and medication schedules, but eventually cognitive and emotional needs as well.

“How do I do this?” “I can’t remember how to send an email or read my messages on my cellphone.” “I am bored.” “Keep me company. You are always running off to do something.” “Why isn’t this working?” The demands keep coming, and the fixer/caretaker is there to take care of them. Eventually, the caregiver may find herself resenting the unrelenting demands on time and energy. But the pattern is set, and the demands are expected to be met.

Sometimes fixers/caretakers assume that if they try harder, they will be able to solve the problem, be it an adult child who always seems too stressed to deal with the demands of daily life such as paying bills, or a fellow employee whose carelessness and sloppy presentations require constant revisions. The fixers want to take over because they know they can take care of the problem faster and more effectively than the person who needs the help. One obvious result is a dependency on others and a reluctance to solving the problems themselves. Why should they, when Mom, Dad, Aunt Sally, or the other team member at work can do it?

It is also possible that support organizations for those with debilitating diseases amplify and exacerbate the role of the fixer. These organizations, and the websites on which they communicate their advice, often have lists of helpful suggestions: reminder lists, labels, wall-size calendars with appointments, computer programs that train a failing brain, devices to help the physically impaired, music therapy, physical therapy, and social interactions. There always seems to be some solution that compensates for a failing body or mind.

A dear friend who died a few years ago of ALS was able, with the help of a charitable organization, to obtain the necessary devices to allow her to live at home. Her small apartment filled up with a sling to move her from room to room, an electric wheelchair, special cutlery when her fingers lost their dexterity, an amplified phone, and oxygen masks to help her breathe better. There was even a motorized platform that brought her wheelchair from her first-floor apartment to the sidewalk. It seems as if every problem was fixable. And we who knew her assumed they would keep on being fixed. Until, of course, they no longer could be.

Thus, those who take on the role of fixer/caretaker have to come to terms with the realization that not all problems can be fixed, nor can even the most dedicated caregiving prevent the situation that is beyond care.

Moreover, fixers have to be careful that the role is not thrust upon them. Sometimes geography (living near the needy individual), time, money, work, marital status, or a reputation for being a good facilitator, cause one sibling out of many to be the designated fixer.

“You live near mother," or "Your job is flexible," or "You don’t have a family to take care of," or "You are so good at making arrangements, so we decided that you can take care of everything,” are some of the many reasons given to make someone the designated caregiver.

And regardless of how efficient and compassionate the fixer is, invariably the demands of being constantly on call to take care of problems that arise take their toll. Weight gain is often a consequence, due in part to lack of sleep, infrequent exercise, poor eating habits, and stress. I had a client who came to me for help with losing the weight she was gaining while being the caretaker for her mother who was mentally disabled. An aide took care of her mother at night, so my client could go to her job as an air traffic controller at a major airport. When I asked her how she could endure such a stressful job, she said that in comparison to taking care of her mother, it was relaxing.

Unfortunately, the fixers/caregivers are often unable to fix their own situation when it becomes intolerable, nor do they have the time and energy to give themselves the care they need. They often hear a well-meaning friend or family say, “Take care of yourself,” and their silent response is to ask, “How?”

The solution to their predicament is not to offer, but to give help. Not to ask what can I do, but say I will do such and such for you: make phone calls, or help pay bills, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, stay in the house so the caregiver can go to a doctor’s appointment, or even to go get a hair cut. My friend with ALS had a network of friends and family who cooked for her and her husband, cleaned, stayed with her so he could leave for an hour or two, and, toward the end, slept over in shifts to be with her when she awoke at night.

When we became a community of fixers and caregivers, the shared burden stops being a burden.