Improving the Family Caregiving Relationship

grandmaToday families have become the foundation of long-term care for older persons living in the community. Studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of older adults rely solely on family members for care while less than 10 percent receive help from paid service providers. The vast majority of family caregivers, (80 percent), are middle-aged females and a wife over the age of 65 is most likely to serve as the caregiver for an impaired, older spouse living at home, followed by daughters over the age of 50, caring for a father. When these family members are not available, siblings, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren often step in to provide primary assistance.

Yet similar to the only partially joking statement that babies do not come with instruction manuals, neither do older individuals being cared for by family members. Additionally, while parenting classes now abound, classes in how to care for elderly parents or relatives, at the same time as children, spouses, and the caretaker themselves, are practically non-existent. Often, this situation becomes serious enough to severely effect a loving marital or familial relationship due to caregiver exhaustion and hopelessness over the chance of improvement in their circumstances. This can result in positive relationships deteriorating into an unhappy and unhealthy situation for everyone involved.

The possibility that these types of difficulties may develop is critical to consider before a family member may need such care. This is important for a number of reasons, one of the most significant being that without prior thought and planning, the effects of a caregiver situation on both parties can be devastating.

The accumulated findings speak to the reality of caring for a loved one:

Negative Patterns Exhibited by Caregivers

• Physical and emotional burnout is extremely common, causing the caregiver to be unable to care for themselves, or provide even minimal care for others.

• Burnout commonly leads to feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and ill, until caregivers can no longer see beyond their own problems and become unable to view things from their loved one’s perspective.

• Burnout frequently results in the caretaker becoming unaware of making comments or behaving in ways that could hurt the one for whom they’re caring.

• Family caregivers frequently develop unrecognized resentment due to lost independence and the inability to exert control over their lives further eroding the quality of care they are able to provide.

Negative Patterns Exhibited by the Individual Receiving Care

• The person receiving care will often begin to respond to the care provider in a manner similar to how the provider is acting towards them.

• Resentment frequently develops in the individual receiving care resulting from the belief they’re being blamed for the situation in which they now find themselves

• Anger often results in those being cared for due to frustration over the loss of independence

Despite the fact that both parties in a care giving relationship often experience the same difficulties often resulting from similar factors, they are unable to recognize their unhappiness in the other, preventing the ability to improve the relationship by imparting these emotions. Instead, this growing cycle of negativity, eclipses the love, attachment, and shared history that exists.

Causes of Problems Within the Care Giver Relationship

While much research to date on this topic is anecdotal, it appears that one of the main causes of caregiver burnout, and rebound resentment in the one receiving care is the deliberate numbing of feelings. This is generally viewed as an attempt by both individuals to avoid pain or distress, by closing off their emotions from each other.

In care giving relationships involving seniors, especially if they also have a debilitating illness or disability, there will be stress, difficult days, and unpredictable problems. When individuals knowingly or more often unknowingly, shut each other out, and refuse to relate except around care taking tasks, this often turns into interactions characterized by mutual criticism, belittling, accusations, and sometimes aggression.

It can be difficult for someone to see how they contribute to a problematic relationship, if they only perceive how the other individual is unfair and hurtful. Each person believes they have been wronged, and eventually one feels the need to stand up for themselves, lashing out at the other. The other individual will commonly then retaliate, setting up an escalating cycle of harmful interactions that can result, in extreme cases in abuse or neglect. When isolated as individuals in care giving situations often are it is even easier for them to become blind to the other’s point of view.

Recreating the Loving Relationship

Developing the ability to see each other as equals within the family framework, and recognizing and acknowledging each other’s strengths, can help re-establish a normal, mutually caring relationship. This can help re-institute feelings of security, comfort, and trust, which neither may have consciously realized were missing. Once trust has been restored, it is possible to begin having open discussions of how each individual perceives the situation as well as how they feel their role has been defined and how they’d prefer it is defined in the future.

This process of sharing thoughts and feelings can help each person better understand the other, helping them to develop a different way to view and react to the stress of the situation instead of blaming each other. This will ultimately lead to a growing cycle of positive communication and interactions.

Sometimes, people have been socialized to believe that the need to discuss problems and feelings means that something is wrong, weak or lacking in them, and in such cases, they may need help in overcoming these roadblocks. This help can come from a number of avenues such as friends, other family members, community, support groups, clergy, or counseling. While at first, it may feel uncomfortable sharing problems with others, most come to believe the benefits of rebuilding a positive, loving relationship among family members or potentially developing a connection that is even stronger than before is worth the initial discomfort.

The continued growth of such a relationship can help each individual to see the other for who they truly are, a complete person not someone exclusively defined by the position of caretaker or care recipient. Forming an appreciation and respect for the meaningful, significant, “human” aspects of each other, will lead to the discovery of the wealth of wonderful qualities that exist within both individuals.

Concluding Thoughts

Though these steps will not entirely get rid of the very real stress involved in care taking relationships, this growing connection will provide a new found ability to better deal with the negative effects of stress in a healthier, more positive manner. While it may seem hard to change long existing ways of thinking and acting, over time, with continued effort, it will begin to feel more natural.

This can only happen, however, if those in care giving relationships are committed to building enduring relationships by working to make each other feel valued, listened to, understood, respected, cared about, and, most importantly, appreciated as someone with something important to contribute inside and outside the care giving relationship.

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