How Caregiving Stepfamilies Can Get Along Better

Blended families need to learn to sideline divisive issues

Respect family connections

Soon after a loved one is diagnosed, the spouse should organize a family meeting that includes the adult children from the first marriage. This acknowledges:

a) the loving bond that each relative has with the ailing family member;

b) the right of each person — regardless of when or how they came into the family — to obtain information and offer input; and

c) the fact that you have joined forces to restore the health and well-being of someone you all love.

When a stepparent withholds information or doesn't solicit the opinions of the adult children, he or she risks making adversaries of potential allies. The children may try to inject themselves in the medical decision-making, opposing the stepparent's views merely to demonstrate their importance in the aging parent's life.

Be clear but inclusive on legal topics

In situations where an ill family member can no longer make decisions for himself, a legal basis may exist for a spouse or adult child to take charge of his care. (A medical power of attorney document provides one such basis.) Though other relatives may not like the arrangement, they must accede to it. The person who has power of attorney, however, should continue to seek input from all family members. This level of openness makes eventual cooperation more likely, even when disagreements arise.

Mutual concern means mutual responsibility

Recruiting family members to take on caregiving chores is a challenge in any family. But spousal caregivers who may not have had strong previous relationships with their stepchildren may have to be more direct: You may have to make specific and repeated requests of a stepchild to secure his help in caring for an aging parent. Broach these requests as opportunities for the child to assist his or her parent, not necessarily the stepparent.

Yes, it can be tough for spouses and stepchildren to pull together, not drift apart, during the caregiving years. Yet the result, a newfound respect for one another, rewards the effort — and may continue to do so long after the aging parent's recovery or death.

Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D is an AARP caregiving expert.

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