Aging Parents and Conflict Resolution

  • Are You Feeling Overwhelmed, Uneasy Or Fed Up About The Constant Back And Forth About Your Parents' Condition And What Help They Need?

  • Is There Constant Arguing Between Members Of The Family That Leads Nowhere?

You are not alone. There are many painstaking family problems adult children may face when their aging parent(s) need help or may no longer be able to function independently.

That irritation triggered by conflict has a ripple effect throughout your family poisoning relationships and damaging trust just when it is critical that your family work well together. Adult children who are perfectly capable, functioning adults find themselves resorting to their old childhood roles, control issues appear very significantly for elderly parents who are experiencing declining physical and mental health, and the issues involved are both huge and sensitive and often have no easy answers.

Add to that the many unprecedented hurdles facing baby boomers as they start taking care of their ailing parents: Life expectancy is up, as is the accompanying dementia; boomers are divorced and often without the support of a second earner; they are living farther away from the family home and often still supporting children. It's like a pressure cooker.

Image thanks to The Globe and Mail

It shouldn't surprise anyone that sensitive family dynamics can be one of the most challenging aspects of elder care decision making, given the tremendous financial, physical, and emotional demands involved. However, in order to make real progress on the elder issues that conflict must be confronted and resolved otherwise the arguments will continue while the situation continues to deteriorate.

Common Causes Of Family Tensions And Disagreements

Typically, disagreements arise because of:

  • Roles And Rivalries Dating Back To Childhood. How will you cope with the natural reemergence of unresolved childhood rivalries, hurts, and needs? Mature adults often find that they're back in the sandbox when their family gets together. This tendency can grow even more pronounced under the strain of caregiving. If your sister was the favored child, for example, you may find that -- no matter how successful and capable you are now -- in your parents' or relatives' home you become a jealous, powerless little girl again.

  • Disagreements Over An Elder's Condition And Capabilities. Who will make major medical decisions, manage finances, and enforce end-of-life choices if your parents cannot? And how will this be decided and carried out? It's common for family members to have very different ideas about what's wrong with a loved one and what should be done about it. You may be convinced that your family member is no longer capable of driving, while your brothers argue that he needs to maintain his independence.

  • Disagreements Over Financial Matters And Other Practical Issues. How can inheritance and the division of property, assets, and personal effects be handled to minimize hurt feelings and resentment? How to pay for a family member's care is often a huge cause of tension. Who should decide? Financial concerns can influence decisions about where the person should live, whether or not a particular medical intervention is needed, and whether he can afford a housekeeper. These conflicts are often fueled by ongoing resentment over income disparities and perceived inequities in the distribution of the family estate.

  • Burden Of Care. How will you negotiate caregiving issues and deal with unequal contributions or power struggles? Experts say the most common source of discord among family members occurs when the burden of caring for an elder isn't distributed equally. Usually one of the adult children in the family takes on most of the care-giving tasks, especially if they live closer to the aging parent.

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Experts Suggest The Following Steps To Help You Recognize And Avoid Some Of These Common Land Mines.

  • Hold Regular Family Meetings. As soon as your parent begins to have health problems, initiate regular family meetings with your siblings and other family members who will be involved in their care. The goal is to share information and make decisions as a group; the meetings can also be a source of support and provide a forum for resolving disagreements. You want to set up an environment that is neutral and won't put anyone on the defensive.

    If all or some of you live in different parts of the country, the meetings can be held by conference call. There are now many free conference call services available (you can search online with the term free conference calls). Set a regular time for the family meetings that's convenient for everyone involved -- it could be once a month, or whatever suits your family -- and if you can, do so before a crisis occurs, so this tool will be in place when you really need it. If possible, reserve a little time at the end of the meeting or conference call to chat and catch up.

  • Divide The Labor. Rather than insist that all of the care-giving tasks be divided equally, consider a division of labor that takes into account each family member's interests and skills, as well as their availability. Your sister may find it difficult to get away during the day to take your parent to their doctor's appointments, but perhaps she can handle their finances or take the lead in finding an appropriate long-term care situation. A far away sibling won't be able to help with day-to-day care but may be able to come for a visit every few months to give you a break. A fair division of labor can mitigate resentment and make caregiving more efficient. The family meeting is an excellent venue for setting up a caregiving schedule and dividing up tasks.

  • Talk About It. If you feel you're carrying too much of the burden, consider discussing it with siblings and other family members. They may not realize that you're feeling overwhelmed -- or even know how much you're doing. In a calm, quiet moment -- perhaps at the next family meeting -- explain how you feel in a matter-of-fact, non confrontational way. Try to be concrete and specific when you ask for help. For example, ask your sister if she can take over the grocery shopping, or find out if your niece can regularly drive your aging parent to doctor's appointments. It's also important to communicate with other family members if you're burned out and need a break. Likewise, if another sibling or family member is doing most of the caregiving, offer support and encourage her to express her frustrations and talk about what would make it easier for her.

  • Offer Help Even If You Live Far Away. If you live far from your family member and other relatives are responsible for most of the care, be sure to offer support. Very often, people don't realize how much they can contribute, even from a distance. Check in often to see how things are going and to offer whatever assistance you can. Ask about how the caregiver is doing and be a sounding board for frustrations and concerns. Be patient if the caregiver needs to vent.

The National Caregivers Alliance advises relatives who live far away to let the caregivers know how much you appreciate what they do and to make sure that primary caregivers get regular respite. Visit regularly and take over your family member's care if you can, and if you can't, find other ways to make sure primary caregivers get regular breaks. Perhaps you can pay for some additional care or offer to hire a housecleaner for the caregivers.

When Do You Call In An Umpire?

If the tensions are just too high or your family seems to be floundering get a professional in as early as possible. You can [hire] a social worker or geriatric-care manager or mediator/facilitator depending on your needs. It needs to be somebody who can hold the family meeting and say, "These are the objective issues. What can each of you contribute?" And, who can keep the focus on the issues and resolving them.

While these are difficult times they are not insurmountable. In fact, if managed well, the experience of caring for an older family member has the potential to bring you all closer as you help your elderly parents through this final stage of life.

In researching this article I relied on the following sources:

The New Old Age Blog, N.Y. Times

They're Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy

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