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Seeking Family Forgiveness Through Caregiving

How a black sheep can become a white knight

One of my patients, Marla (not her real name), spent decades paying the price for being a rebellious teenager, quitting school and moving several states away. As an adult, she and her parents never talked about those troubled years during their weekly phone calls, but her family didn't ever fully trust her again. She felt helpless to gain their forgiveness and shed her negative image.

Mother and daughter laughing

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Family members can put the past behind them and regain trust and love through caregiving.

Then her mother had a devastating stroke and, not long afterward, her father died suddenly. All at once, Marla saw an opportunity to help her mother, but also to redeem herself — to prove once and for all that she was a good daughter, capable and dependable. She hoped to finally win some respect and love.

In the crucible of caregiving — when stakes are high and loyalties are tested — many caregivers seek to change their family reputations. Little sisters, perhaps once dismissed as immature by bossy elders, step up to become steely-eyed decision-makers. Older husbands who've long been seen as self-involved workaholics might demonstrate their devotion to disabled wives. Even movies such as The Savages (2007) have depicted how family caregivers can right old wrongs and spark family harmony.

(Video) A Day in the Life of a Caregiver: In the United States, about 40 million people provide unpaid care to an ill or disabled adult. One-quarter of those caregivers have been in their roles for five years or longer.

But in the real world, there's no guarantee that caregiving will produce a happy ending. When Marla offered to move into her mother's house to serve as the hands-on caregiver, her sisters first scoffed and then reluctantly agreed to the plan. She still received only grudging thanks after weeks of attending to her mother's daily needs. Her mother watched her tensely, as if she still half-expected Marla to steal her jewelry and run away.

It's not easy to change long-held beliefs within a family. But good behavior while caring for a loved one can increase your chances of being viewed positively. Here are some ideas for improving how you're perceived.

Be consistent. If you failed them previously, your family members will be watching. Even one slipup, such as a forgotten appointment, can undermine fragile trust. Show steady evidence of dependability to affirm that you've changed.

Express remorse. Although you may have already apologized for hurting members of your family — and it all seems to you like ancient history -— apologize again. Your current position as caregiver may create a new context where your words are better received than they were in the past.

Give loving care regardless of recognition. If you try too hard to play the caregiving hero, then your efforts may look self-serving. Remember that you're caring for an aging parent because it reflects your values — not primarily because you'll be viewed in a new light — and your sincerity is more likely to shine through.

Marla did just that: She continued to plug away at caregiving for her mother without expectation. After a few months, her mother seemed more accepting, if not exactly warm. Marla tried to be patient. She made a point of telling her mother she was sorry for the pain she had caused her long ago and was glad to be back in her life again. Her mother said little in response at the time but began to soften her tone, and the tension between them lessened. This wasn't exactly redemption, in Marla's mind, but it was a start.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, is a member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel.

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