Family Caregiving is Complicated

October 27, 2022
Middle-aged woman feeling down or frustrated

There are hundreds of articles published weekly on the subject of family caregiving ~ many covering topics such as caring for your spouse, practicing self-care, and building a community of support. While all of these topics are important and relevant, I have noticed there is a subset of  “outlier” or more complicated family caregiver scenarios that don’t seem to garner much attention.

Some examples of “outlier” scenarios could be:

  • The adult children who did not have a "happy childhood."
  • The adult children whose parent is or has been estranged.
  • The adult child who lives 2500 miles from his/her aging parent.
  • The adult child who is an only child.

Let’s unpack this a bit

In the first scenario, imagine you grew up in a household where your needs were not met. Your parent may have had a problem with addiction or made poor financial decisions that put the family at risk. The parent could have been abusive or inflicted another form of trauma. Fast forward 40 years and now said parent is requiring help ~  and a lot of it. You may feel the expectation to step up in a big way, but emotionally you may be unprepared to do so. Acknowledging this is imperative - and, more than likely, seeking professional support as well. You are now in a position where you can control the situation, set boundaries, and protect yourself while possibly helping your aging parent at the same time.

Another scenario could be that you have literally not laid eyes on your parent for decades; you are estranged from them, but then comes the email or phone call letting you know a crisis has occurred. Do you ignore this information and not answer? Do you leap into action? Depending on the circumstances of the estrangement, you may decide to re-engage. One of the keys would be for you to establish boundaries as well as clearly manage everyone’s expectations - right from the start.

The third scenario where you live across the country from your parent can be fraught with complications as well. You may only see your parent every six months, at best (and a lot can happen in six months). You may or may not have other family members nearby so your “intel” could be limited or compromised. Under this scenario, there are often feelings of guilt or “never doing enough.” It’s a difficult situation to be in because you want to offer help and support, but you are limited as to how much you can contribute to the caregiving process. Other siblings might resent your “intermittent” involvement or keep certain information from you so as not to rock the boat. A goal here would be to create a task list - as a family - and be sure every item and every person on the team is accounted for. Make it visible - on a spreadsheet - so as to keep resentment to a minimum and accountability to a maximum.

Last but not least, what if you are an old child with a full-time job, a family of your own, AND two aging parents? This, my friends, is a lot. You live nearby so you want to help and you are expected to help, but how? This is a scenario that truly requires a “village” of support. Friends, neighbors, volunteer organizations, etc. all need to be called upon. Or, if resources are available, hiring a care manager could be the exact relief you need. Care managers become a part of the care team, an ally for the family, delivering solutions and support to help navigate the challenges ahead. If I have said it once, I have said it 100 times, we as caregivers need to “put our air masks on first.” We need to protect ourselves so we can be there for others. The unique needs of an only child scream for support.

It’s very easy to judge family caregivers but we need to remember that no two situations are alike and unless we are “in it,” we will never know the true family dynamics. 

The goal of this article is to shine some light on those situations where the connection between or among family members is complex and to offer grace when we really don’t know what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.

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