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Family Conflict: Caregiving Can Affect Relationship With Loved One

The care recipient still should make some decisions; some changes can be introduced slowly

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Caring for an older loved one can affect the dynamics in the relationship.

“The relationship can start to feel different when one person becomes dependent on the other, or you can start to feel like your parent’s parent,” says Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland and author of Too Young to Be Old.

Meanwhile, you may feel angry or frustrated that your parent has become ill. Or you may feel guilty because you wish that you didn’t have to be the caregiver. 

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By contrast, your parent may feel resentful about being so dependent or losing the ability to care for himself or herself but also may feel grateful for your help, she says.

Here are steps you can take to avoid stirring up unpleasant feelings and keep the relationship on an even keel:

1. Ask loved ones how they want to age

“When the conversation is approached in that framework, it works better because it preserves the parent’s dignity,” says Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, health care consultant and AARP columnist.

“If you can agree on an overarching goal, it’s easier to figure out how to get there,” he says.

Still, it’s important to create contingency plans if things don’t go well with a particular living situation or care arrangement.

2. Respect your loved one’s wishes

“Let the parent make as many decisions as he or she can,” Schlossberg says.

Whether that means choosing what to have for lunch, deciding what to watch on TV, or picking a museum or a garden for an outing, letting loved ones have a say in the decision-making preserves their dignity and sense of autonomy. This, in turn, will ease the care recipient’s sense of dependency and the caregiver’s decision burden.

Also, “take steps to guard the loved one’s privacy by not hovering too much,” says Eve Markowitz Preston, a psychologist in private practice in New York City who serves mostly older adults and often makes home visits.

3. Make adjustments

If your loved one wants to do something that’s not realistic because of that person’s physical or cognitive limitations, “validate the person’s wishes but encourage adjustments to maintain safety,” Preston says.

That might mean taking a wheelchair or a scooter to the park rather than letting your loved one walk the whole time. If a parent wants to remain in her home, but it isn’t safe for her to cook for herself, you might bring in a home-health aide for a certain number of hours to assist and supervise.

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“It all comes down to (this): How do you care for your parent and enable them to live the way they want for as long as possible without taking over their lives,” Jacobs says.  

4. Introduce changes slowly

In altering a loved one’s routines or living situation, “often there’s time to plant the seeds for change,” Jacobs says.

If major changes are in order, suggest modifications and explain why they’re important, whether for convenience, optimal care, safety or another reason.

“Let the issue lie, then come back to it,” Jacobs says. “Make changes slowly so people have a chance to adjust to the idea.”

5. Present a united front

If your loved one is in denial about the need for certain changes or forms of care or puts up a fight for other reasons, remember that “sometimes there’s strength in numbers,” Jacobs says.

“If you and your siblings agree (about what’s best for Mom or Dad), you can speak with one voice, which can help overcome the parent’s resistance,” he says.

The idea isn’t to gang up on the parent but to gently explain the rationale behind making certain changes. This approach can help divert conflict.

6. Find new sources of positivity

Engage your loved one wherever he or she is.

If the person is functioning well, consider doing an art project, assembling a puzzle or cooking together. If the person is ill, “spend time reminiscing and looking at photo albums together,” Schlossberg says.

“Be a good listener,” she says. “Don’t mind if you’ve heard the story before.”

Alternatively, you could listen to an interesting audiobook together. Besides boosting your loved one’s mood, sharing positive experiences like these can strengthen the connection between you. 

Stacey Colino is an independent, award-winning writer specializing in health, psychology and family issues. Her work has appeared in dozens of national magazines as well as websites and books.

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