Consider this journey from crisis to indignation: The 75-year-old woman was distraught about her husband's recent stroke — then outraged by the ensuing actions of his three grown children.
When she married their father 15 years ago, the kids had been outwardly supportive. (By then, a full decade had passed since he divorced their mother.) But now the three were challenging their stepmother's authority as medical power of attorney for the disabled man, going behind her back to talk directly to their father's doctors.
There was worse to come: Her stepchildren questioned her love for her husband. When the woman told physicians she didn't want all-out efforts to save her husband in the event of another devastating stroke, one of the children angrily accused her of "giving up on Dad."
With about 45 percent of first marriages ending in divorce and 60 percent of divorced men getting remarried (the figure is lower for women), stepfamilies are common in the United States. More than 4 in 10 of us have at least one step-relative. There's no shortage of painful anecdotes about how disagreements over parenting, money or living arrangements can make step-relationships shaky at best.
When step-relatives are called upon to become members of a caregiving team for an aging parent or disabled spouse, those relationships can weaken and buckle under the stress. Whoever came up with the saying "Blood is thicker than water" must have had stepfamily caregivers in mind!
This was borne out by a study published in the September 2013 Journal of Marriage and Family. University of Michigan researcher Carey Wexler Sherman interviewed 61 late-life second wives, all of them caring for husbands with Alzheimer's. When it came to nitty-gritty caregiving tasks, Sherman found, the wives received little help from their adult stepchildren. At the same time, however, the children freely offered unsolicited advice — and unwanted criticism — about the wives' efforts. They also vied with their stepmothers for the power to make medical and financial decisions for their fathers. Hurt by their stepchildren's behavior, the wives were more likely to feel burdened — and to become depressed.
What explains this meager support? Sherman concluded that "a lack of shared family history and norms likely affect the way stepfamily members cope with the demands of taking care of a loved one with dementia."
In my view, caregiving can inflame long-held grudges within a stepfamily. Rather than commiserate nonjudgmentally over a loved one's medical condition, many step-relatives try to cope with the crisis by venting their anger at one another.
Is there a smoother path? My experience says yes. If you're part of a caregiving stepfamily, try these steps to foster greater cooperation.