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Unresolved Issues in Family Caregiving

By Kristine Dwyer, LSW and Douglas Heck, PhD

(Page 1 of 3)

The phone call came on a misty Sunday morning. Mary’s 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 parents’ 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 one’s 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 parents’ needs. In more severe situations, angry caregivers may unknowingly seek revenge or cause harm, which is dangerous for both the caregiver and parents.

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