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How to Handle Family Conflicts When Caring for an Elderly Relative

How to Handle Family Conflicts When Caring for an Elderly Relative

John was blessed with a large family. He would be the first to tell you so. Now that he is elderly and has dementia, his children are committed to seeing that he gets the best care possible. The primary responsibility for managing his caregiving falls to those who live nearby. For the most part, there have been few family conflicts.

Every once in a while though, a family member becomes upset. If the situation isn’t handled well it quickly escalates. An example: One of the siblings responsible for managing day-to-day care makes what she considers a minor decision. An “away” sibling is upset that she was told about it after the fact. This sibling wanted to participate in the decision-making process.

This example is fairly typical. Ideally, families either resolve their own conflicts or they have someone to turn to for help. The key is to get started before things go too far. It’s best if mediation occurs before disputes escalate. Often, though, people don’t consider the option until things have begun to fall apart.

Why Disagreements Occur

  • People slip into their old childhood roles when the family gets together — no matter how old, how accomplished or how mature they are.
  • Sibling rivalries surface or become exaggerated under the strain of caregiving.
  • Siblings may have different opinions about what an elderly parent needs.
  • An “away” sibling may only talk to a parent by phone and think that everything seems just fine.
  • Concerns about how to pay for care may arise. A sibling who doesn’t earn the same income as another may harbor resentment about a diminishing family estate.
  • Siblings who handle the bulk of the care may become exhausted and resentful. “Away” siblings may be grateful for the ones providing the care, but may also feel guilty.

A closer look at family conflicts

Conflicts occur when there is a miscommunication or lack of communication. Sometimes families need to take a step back and look at all the facts. What happened?

When some of the children live out of state, they might not have a realistic picture of what’s really going on. For instance, over the phone, even a person with dementia may be able to communicate fairly well. The parent is actually making it sound like everything is ok. But the “away” sibling doesn’t really have the day-to-day experience of what’s actually happening. Sometimes the sibling who is there will see what needs to happen and will make a decision not thinking it’s a big deal.

Then the “away” siblings don’t understand why a decision was made because they don’t think there is a problem. Mom or Dad sounded perfectly fine on the phone. That same sibling may be resentful because decisions are being made without their input. The sibling providing care may feel resentful because they don’t feel supported.

Feelings of guilt can also get in the way of good communication. The “away” siblings may be appreciative that someone is there making decisions. If something happens, however, they may feel guilty for not pulling their weight. That guilt may turn into resentment because they’re not being including in the decision making.

Figure out how you are going to communicate before conflict becomes a problem.

Communication suggestions

  • Have regular family meetings. Use whatever method works best for the majority.
    • In-person
    • Conference calls
    • Skype
    • Email, but be really careful with how you word things. Read it over before sending it. Never write an emotional response. Pick up the phone instead.
  • Divide caregiving responsibilities according to skills and availability
    • A sibling who can’t provide direct care could take over bill-paying and/or grocery shopping instead.
    • Siblings from away might try to visit more often in order to provide respite care.
    • A home care agency could help provide companionship or other services, such as grocery shopping or housekeeping.
  • Tell your siblings if you’re overwhelmed by your duties. They may have no idea how you feel.
  • If you live away, let your siblings know how much you appreciate what they are doing. Ask if there is some way you can contribute and follow up.

How to handle a family conflict

  • Take a deep breath and try to assess your role in the situation.
  • Consider speaking to a mediator or counselor skilled in helping families caring for an elderly parent.
  • If you are a primary caregiver, make sure you are also taking care of yourself. You can’t resolve problems if you’re overwhelmed and exhausted.

Contact Advantage Home Care if you’d like more information about how to resolve conflicts. Your local area agency on aging or the Alzheimer’s Association may also be able to help you find an appropriate family mediator.

If you have been successful at handling family conflicts, please share your story with us. We are always looking for ways to make things easier for families.

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