Unresolved Issues in Family Caregiving

By Kristine Dwyer, LSW and Douglas Heck, PhD

 

The phone call came on a misty Sunday morning. Maryís mother had fallen at home and was hospitalized with severe injuries.  Mary and her sister were contacted by their elderly father and a social worker and encouraged to return home to help their aged parents make medical decisions, straighten out financial and legal matters, and find home care services. They were called to be caregivers yet found themselves facing this role with great apprehension and mixed emotions as they considered stepping back into their parentsí lives. Memories of a difficult childhood and stressful relationships had led the family to years of estrangement. At this point, they looked for guidance and answers to the dilemma they faced.

Unfortunately, this scenario is a common one. We have often assisted caregivers with this dilemma and would like to offer some insights to help those of you who may be facing caregiving with great uncertainty.

First, please know that you are not alone. Many caregivers across the country find themselves having mixed feelings about caring for their parents. Some of these emotions arise from the natural concern about how best to provide care without adversely disrupting oneís own busy life. However, it is also very common for caregivers to have even stronger feelings, such as shame, bitterness, and anger as they try to cope with the caregiving needs of elderly parents that have caused family issues to arise.

Our relationship with our parents may suddenly be in a state of change and as we age we are often called from our role of a child to take on a parental or authoritative role. It is important to be aware of the possible dangers of unresolved issues and identify the feelings that have come forward through this situation. This time of transition can cause strong yet dormant emotions to surface and open old relationship wounds. If we are not aware of these feelings, we may be at risk of inadvertently targeting our vulnerable parents with our anger.  Sometimes, if unresolved issues and associated strong emotions are ignored, our ability to provide good care can become compromised. We may become less gentle, supportive, or empathic in our care. We may also become avoidant, or respond more slowly to our parentsí needs. In more severe situations, angry caregivers may unknowingly seek revenge or cause harm, which is dangerous for both the caregiver and parents.

It is important to decide whether to try to resolve issues with parents, or leave the past alone. This can be a difficult decision, but an important one. Admittedly, facing past issues can be very complicated and attempts to reconcile differences may only add to oneís own personal pain or disturb a parentís overall well-being. At this point you may decide to NOT try to resolve issues, do your best to provide good care, and develop some ways of coping with your own mixed feelings. In many cases, this is the best choice to make.

If you realize that your feelings will keep you from providing good care and having a positive relationship with your parents, then it may help to sit down and directly discuss your feelings with them. In some situations, it is better to write a letter to your parents, followed by a discussion. In our experience, this kind of discussion has often led to a resolution of issues, has freed those involved from their feelings and resulted in a much more meaningful relationship.
The act of caregiving alone can sometimes bring about the healing of emotional wounds from the past. Providing direct or indirect care for a vulnerable parent can help bring closure to unresolved issues.  Anger can sometimes be replaced by understanding, compassion, and perhaps forgiveness. Peacefulness can overcome bitterness, which can then lead to a beneficial and healthy experience for both parents and family caregivers.

Caregiving, in spite of mixed feelings, can be accomplished successfully in several ways:

  • Accept what is. Acceptance of the current circumstances and reasonable expectations of oneís ability to be a caregiver are crucial steps.

  • Feelings and memories can intensify during the caregiving process. Be aware of your limits and seek professional assistance, such as counseling, if needed.

  • Develop healthy ways of managing your emotions. Find a release, such as a walk, a good cry, journal writing or expressing your frustration to a close friend.

  • Ask yourself what you are realistically willing and able to do in regards to the care of your parents, given how you feel about them.

  • Delegate other tasks and needs to those who are able to serve in the caregiving role such as other relatives, neighbors or friends, especially if you are a long distance caregiver.

  • Seek out community resources through social services, churches, senior volunteer organizations, Area Agencies on Aging and family caregiver support programs.

  • Remember that asking for help is a sign of strength.

In summary, many of us find ourselves faced with mixed emotions toward providing care for our parents. These feelings may be mild or more severe and perhaps based upon years of past family conflicts. Whether you decide to resolve the issues or not, providing positive care for your parents is the goal. Many caregivers have used this time in their lives to address difficulties which can then hopefully lead to reconciliation, healing and a more meaningful caregiving experience.

 

Douglas G. Heck, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with the Duluth Psychological Clinic in Duluth, MN.  He specializes in working with clients with chronic illness, and their spouses and families.

Kristine Dwyer, LSW is the Caregiver Consultant for Carlton County Public Health in Cloquet, Minnesota

 

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