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The Life Transition Blog

Family Members Need to Work Together


When it comes time to care for an aging relative, especially a parent, it usually works out best for everyone if family members can set aside their differences. When a family first approaches me in search of caregiver coaching and support, I try to get a handle on where each family member is coming from to better understand points of agreement and disagreement. At first, everyone is on “good behavior” and tries hard to come across as agreeable. However, when I talk with each family member individually, I often learn about underlying tensions that already are, or may soon be, in the way of optimal caregiving and decision-making. Interestingly, when I talk with the care recipient privately, it is not at all atypical for her to bring up this tension that the children think they are doing such a good job of hiding and to point to it as one of the most stressful aspects of her situation.

The one point that everyone can generally agree on is that their objective is to make sure that mom or dad receives the best possible care. However, how to achieve this is where the trouble often starts. For example, what if one sibling believes that hands on care for Dad should only be provided by family members while his sister just as strongly feels that professional caregivers should be employed, thus allowing the family members to be there for the social and emotional support that Dad needs?

Families are advised to take inventory. Who can provide what? Is one sister great at organizing a schedule of caregivers and people to drive mom to her appointments? Maybe her brother is a physician and will be on top of the medical issues. Perhaps there is a sibling who lives far away and doesn’t have much time but who will volunteer to be the communications director and set up a system for keeping everyone in the loop. It is important to take stock of other kinds of resources too, namely time and money. If each family member can find some way to contribute to the effort that is within his or her skills, time constraints, and financial ability then things will flow more smoothly.

Money is often at the core of the tension among family caregivers, even though no one likes to admit it. One person may feel that mom or dad’s resources should be used to pay for care, while another may feel that he is “entitled” to that as his inheritance and would prefer that the family provide the care so that there is something left after the parent passes away. One sibling may have more money she can afford to contribute to care and would prefer to do that rather than providing the hands on care herself. However, since no one likes to come right out and admit these things, they are often hidden away under other, often petty, issues.

Sometimes family caregivers simply get stuck in their roles or attitudes and don’t know how to change things. In these cases, it is often important to get someone involved who can serve as the objective third party. This person doesn’t have a stake in the game and isn’t aware of the baggage that accompanies every family. He or she can ask the tough questions right along with the obvious ones. Sometimes, simply having an outsider scratch her head and ask why something is the way it is can be enough to get things unstuck.
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