3 Things I learned about family relationships when caregiving

March 18, 2008 by  
Filed under Archives, News

When I first arrived to my aunt’s house after her first chemo, my cousin said, “Did I tell you how glad I am to see you?” She is a RN who works in a health care environment, not with patients. She had been taking care of Barb on her own. She had just lost her dad 11/2 months prior to that day. It was unexpected and just 2 weeks before her mom was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. No one had time to deal with the death of a husband and father. I am a strong, coach like person who sees what needs to be done and either does it or makes sure it gets done. My aunt and I were only 11 years apart and very close from the time we were kids. I worshiped her when I was growing up and she babysat me. I was carried on the shoulders of her husband all through the wedding, I saw her graduate from college, she came to the ceremony when I received my PhD. We talked weekly. But I did not know my cousins very well. I did not visit much when they were growing up so as much as Amy was glad to see me, she had no idea how the relationship would work out. After all, she was a nurse and Barb’s daughter. I was a niece and knew nothing about cancer. After the first week, the honeymoon was over.

My aunt looked to me for support, more than my cousin. Mostly because she did not want her daughter to quit her job and make taking care of her mom, her life. Also, my aunt knew that I would always do what was best for her, not what I needed for myself. But my aunt was not herself she had just lost her husband and had not dealt with it. She actually seemed like she wanted to be with him.  She and I had a telepathic understanding that she would die but we went along with the thought of getting better for the rest of the family. In just the first month, these are first three things I learned about the effect caregiving has on relationships between family members.

First, people become territorial. You spend all day with a person and all night hooked to them by a baby monitor and you become hyper vigilant and not able to give up your care. Meaning you are hovering over the person spelling you which makes them uncomfortable.

Second, everyone tries to hide their feelings so that the care receiver and others stay strong. Many times, I asked how my cousin was feeling and all I got was “how one would expect.” Instead of us all dealing with our frustration, fears, guilt, anger.

Third, the definition of good care by each family member is mediated by their experiences and their need to be needed.

These 3 things create conflicts because each person involved in the primary care of the person begins to take “ownership” of the care and due to the lack of open communication a tug of war exists that creates distress for the care receiver. I know that I am basing this on my experience but I would assume that this happens frequently because in our society we are called “whiners” when we vocalize our fears, frustrations, and ask for help. I could easily see this happening in situations involving caring for elderly parents. Has anyone experienced these situations?

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