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Changing Family Relationships Blog Series

Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension & Caregiver

Families experience ups and downs as they care for family members who need care.

This is the fourth article in a series on how family relationships change and experience conflict when a family member needs care.  The first two articles identified factors that impact family relationships and reasons for family conflict. The third article discusses ways that help individuals understand and potentially resolve family conflicts.

This article focuses on strategies family members can use to improve relationships with the care receiver and ways the primary caregiver can work with other family members. There are also suggestions on ways the primary caregiver can care for themselves when there is family conflict or ways to avoid family conflict.

Hopefully you have begun the process of identifying which factors and reasons contribute to your family conflict and jotted down suggestions from article three to address your family’s conflict.  Continue that process as you read this article.

Communication Strategies 

The primary caregiver is in continual contact with the care receiver and is the family member most aware of the care receiver’s condition and needs. They are the family’s link for updates regarding the care receiver’s condition and needs and have the responsibility of communicating with other family members. The following strategies are ways the primary caregiver can use as they communicate with family members:

  • Provide a full picture of the caregiving situation to family members, especially those far away.

    When family members live far away or have busy lives, they aren’t able to see first-hand what’s happening with the care receiver and their environment such as cleanliness of the home, personal hygiene, medication adherence, etc.  Sometimes a care receiver will shelter those not close with the facts. They sound chipper on the phone and become good at disguising what is really going on.  As the primary caregiver you may be put in a situation where you have to or need to share with family members the reality of the care receiver’s situation. This may put you, the primary caregiver, and care receiver at odds with each other.  The primary caregiver will need to talk specially about the changes you are noticing in the home, finances, social life, self-care and the ability of the care receiver to function on their own, etc.

  • Watch how you ask family members for help or assistance.

    Your tone of voice, mannerisms, and words can get you in trouble with family members when asking for assistance. Be as specific as possible about what you need help with, your expectations, and time line.  Once you turn the task over to someone else accept what has been done. Don’t do the task over or criticize what’s been done.

  • Recognize some family members may be in denial.

    Keep in mind that denial is often used as a defense mechanism for lots of reasons including fear, the reality that things aren’t going to be the same, or realization they could lose a loved one. Giving the individual in denial time to adjust will help.  Insisting or arguing will only drive the individual away.  How much time you give your family members depends on their personality, upbringing, resiliency and relationship with the care receiver.

Strategies When Working with Care Receiver

The care receiver’s needs and wishes determine caregiving tasks and responsibilities that family members will provide. Each family member’s relationship with the care receiver is unique but by using strategies that provide overall information about their needs, wishes and abilities will help reduce conflict with the care receiver and family members. A few strategies to consider when working with the care receiver are:

  • Adjust perceptions and expectations of the care receiver.

    Discuss as a family, including the care receiver, what caregiver tasks and responsibilities are needed. Having a list of tasks and responsibilities along with expectations and what each family member would like to do or provide for the care receiver will go a long way in avoiding conflict. Keep in mind family members don’t have to do the task themselves but can be creative in having it accomplished. This could involve purchasing equipment, hiring someone or a service, or utilizing a specialized service such as transportation.

  • Know the abilities of the care receiver.

    All family members need to be aware of what the care receiver can or can’t do.  This knowledge will result in less conflict about what family members or the care receiver will do or not do.  It is critical that family members allow the care receiver to do as much as they possibility can even if it takes a longer for them to accomplish the task. By allowing the care receiver to be independent the primary caregiver won’t be creating a pre-mature dependency of them or other family members.

  • Make the care receiver feel valued and needed.

    The care receiver should be involved as much as possible in decisions affecting them.  It provides them with a sense of control and independence.

  • Encourage the care receiver to do as much as possible for themselves.

    Having the care receiver doing little things provides them with a sense of control and being involved. Participation can range from making choices about what to do, wear, or where to eat.  When providing choices make sure they are realistic choices. For example, if the care receiver cannot drive then don’t provide driving as a choice.  Provide alternative choices such as a taxi, a volunteer or friend as a driver, another family member, etc. It is easy to step in and do a task for the care receiver but the care receiver will be less dependent when they are able to do some things for themselves.

Taking Care of Yourself

If you are the primary caregiver you need to take care of yourself.
Some ways to do that are:

  • Express your feelings to someone who will listen and understand.

    Acknowledge your fears, realize it’s normal to get angry at times and guilt is a common experience for caregivers.

  • Separate your needs from the needs of the care receiver.

    Sometimes as a caregiver you can get so involved in caring that you forget you have your own needs that need to be addressed. It is common for caregivers to become ill because they are not taking care of themselves.

  • Take time to do what you like to do versus what you have to do.

    Doing what you like or want to do is rejuvenating and will energize you.

  • Take breaks so you can get away from caregiving.

    A break could be a bubble bath, time with a friend or even a movie. You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel.

  • Be an effective communicator.

    Use positive communication techniques when working with family members. For more on communication techniques refer to the publication series.

Hopefully you have a plan of action which will guide you as you address conflicts associated with family caregiving and family relationships.  You recognized which factors influence your family relationships and the reasons for conflict.  With this knowledge you can identify strategies to address them.

Keep in mind that each family has a unique relationship with every family member and especially with the care receiver. Working together as a family with knowledge about how family relationships change because of caregiving will help you all experience less conflict. And when there is conflict you’ll be able to address  it with more knowledge.