Managing Family Dynamics

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Article by 

Jolene Hill

As a carer you provide reassurance and physical support for the person in your care. You know their wishes and concerns, and can assist the health professionals to make life as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

However, you may experience resentment from family members, and even have your relationships fall apart due to disagreements about care. Arguments can develop over issues such as the sharing of responsibility for care, the type of care provided, financial decisions and emotional flare ups.

Here are some tips that may help you maintain the family bonds.

Sole Carer Stress

If you are the primary carer for a family member, the stress of managing your responsibilities can sometimes cause resentment and a feeling of injustice.

This is a common response to feel this way. You should not feel guilty for being emotional at a challenging time. You may feel this way even when you enjoy your caring role and feel privileged to be their carer.

These feelings may negatively impact on relationships with family members.

If you feel that the burden of care has become too stressful, then you need to seek further assistance. It is important for your own wellbeing and the care recipient.

This may mean that a family meeting is needed to discuss sharing the caring responsibilities. If this is not practical, you may want to engage an outside care service.

You may not want assistance from other family members, but just recognition of your efforts. This won’t be achieved if you complain to them about your situation, or hint that you are not happy. You should openly discuss with them your need for their ongoing vocal support and appreciation of your efforts.

Family members are often surprised at this type of request. Sometimes they had wrongly assumed the carer would intuitively know their feelings of gratitude and indebtedness.

They may happily express their sentiments when asked, and this is a good way to strengthen the bonds between you.

Who takes responsibility for the care of a family member?

However, if you don’t get the responses you were hoping for from family members, you can be content knowing you are doing the right thing. You will share many treasured moments with the person in your care.

Sharing the Carer Role

The most common factor for disagreements is the question of “who takes responsibility for the care of a family member”. It may be that all the family members want to be included in the caring role, but not all of them have the time or ability to be of assistance. If one person is perceived as having more free time, they may be expected to take on the majority of the caring role. However, this is not a reasonable or fair assumption. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are able to devote more time to caring.

Everyone has different commitments and priorities, and the challenge is to share the care responsibilities in an equitable manner.

Of course, this is not always an easy task, and the solution is open and direct communication.

A family meeting with an agenda to set up a care team is an ideal way to clearly establish and share out caring duties. It is a good idea to list all of the caring requirements. Distinguish between practical and emotional support, before discussing individual roles. This will assist with assigning roles that match each person’s strengths.

It is important, if possible, that you respect the wishes of the person receiving the care. Matters of independence (not being a burden), preferred care options and planned activities should be taken into consideration.

A number of factors to also take into account include differences in locations, work and family commitments. A roster system may be preferable. You will also need to discuss if you wish to engage professional care services. These can help to supplement the care being provided by the family.

Strained Family Relationships

Providing care for someone can be a stressful and emotional time, and family dynamics can suffer as a result. Uncertainty and fear of what the future holds, can cause anxiety and unreasonable responses to daily pressures. This can make it difficult to maintain healthy and balanced relationships.

Family members may disagree with care choices, and this can lead to them feeling upset or frustrated. It may be the case, that they can’t disassociate from old patterns of childhood hierarchies. Or it may be that past rivalries and grievances come to the surface.

This can be a difficult time for all involved, but it shouldn’t result in ruining relationships within the family. Everyone needs to be mindful of the effect that family squabbles may have on the person receiving the care.

It would be beneficial to remind family members that it is not the time to try to solve long standing issues. They may need to put their ego aside and make allowances for their differences. Its about providing the best care outcomes for everyone involved.

Each person needs to express their thoughts and feelings on the care topics to be discussed, without interruptions. It may be necessary to firstly agree on boundaries of what can and can’t be discussed to prevent any escalation of disagreements.

Tensions may arise. It is important to ask that everyone be calm and reasoned, and focus on keeping the family together. Agreeing on short breaks to give people some breathing space and time to gather their thoughts is a good tactic.

A positive outcome would be that all family members agree on their respective care responsibilities. However, this can all be a very tall order in some families. It may be necessary to seek assistance from a social services agency. They can provide mediation to settle disagreements and strengthen communication.

Clear Communication

Ineffective communication can be a major factor in tense relationships. If you are having difficulty communicating with a family member, you should consider:

  • Be an active listener and exercise patience. Wait for your family member to finish expressing their thoughts before responding to them.
  • Take into consideration the other person’s feelings and current emotional state. Save difficult conversations for when they are feeling well, rather than when they are under stress, tired or upset.
  • Share your feelings with a close friend or relative who is removed from the inner family circle. They can provide a different perspective.

Schedule Respite Time

The constant workload of being a carer can lead to feeling exhausted and overburdened. It can affect your relationship with others in your family.

Giving yourself a break can help to reduce your feelings of isolation and burnout. By providing space, you get to collect your thoughts and emotions. It may be that you have a favourite activity or hobby that gives you enjoyment, but you have not been able to find the time to participate. Or it may be that you would gain the most benefit from simply being able to relax.

Try asking a family member or friend to take over the caring role while you take a break. There are also services available to support carers seeking respite.

navigating family dynamics

Support for Carers

Whilst taking on the role of being a full-time carer for someone can be very rewarding, it can sometimes result in feelings of isolation, loneliness and strained family relationships. It may be difficult for you to go outside the home to socialise, and family and friends may start to visit less often.

It can be helpful to share your experiences with someone you feel you can comfortably discuss your concerns – family, friends, neighbours or especially other carers or health professionals, who may be in a better position to understand and empathise with your situation.

Support services & professional counselling services can help you to better manage and understand your situation – particularly relating to relationships and improving behaviours that can be a large part of being a carer.

Support services and professional counselling may include the following:

  • Short-term psychological and emotional support
  • Guidance in your relationship with the person in your care and family members
  • Advice to assist you to better manage challenging behaviours and situations
  • Information to help protect your rights as a carer

There is a range of qualified professional counsellors that provide these services, depending on the type of support you need.

There are also information and advice services to support you in your role. These services will help you with information about:

  • Accessing independent carer advocacy services
  • Making decisions concerning your caring role
  • Planning appropriately for things such as respite care or short-term care.

In the majority of cases, support services and counselling are delivered to you in a wide variety of community settings. However, a small number of services may only be available via ‘phone counselling’.

Carer Support Groups

Carer support groups offer a safe place to talk about your role and experiences as a carer, and discuss your concerns and frustrations with others who are experiencing similar challenges. They can put you in contact with other carers who may be experiencing similar concerns as you, so you can share suggestions and advice to support each other. The Carers Australia website is a good starting point.

Using this type of assistance can reduce the stress you may be experiencing in dealing with strained family relationships, and may even lead you to successfully continue in your caring role for much longer than you first thought possible.

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