Cultivate and Prune the Family Tree
Caregivers experience such a wide range of emotions, and often the associated feelings are difficult to articulate; instead they are expressed in tears and the worn-down body language of slumped shoulders and a bowed head. But just when it seems nothing could be worse than watching a loved one endure the fury of dementia, other family members come in brandishing an equally insufferable weapon: their opinions.
Those opinions, well-intentioned as they may be, frequently sound demanding, judgmental, even menacing to the designated caregiver. How easy it is for the one who has no caregiving responsibility to critique the one who bears its full weight; they question every decision, argue every medication, bicker over every dollar spent—and all this with only a fraction of the information available, merely that which can be seen on the surface.
Relatives, whether near or very distant, seem to feel entitled to “speak their piece” just because they have a familial connection. Never mind that they’ve had almost nothing to do with mother (or father, aunt, uncle or grandparent) for the last few months…or years. Now that the caregiver has had to make the hard decision to place their loved one in the nursing home or other assisted living community, relatives from all over the family tree start to weigh in.
It starts with a simple inquiry into why the caregiver felt the need to put their loved one in a nursing home, and it can flare up into an argument that fractures the family. Often the one attempting to cry foul on the caregiver offers no real help, only criticism cloaked under the disguise of advice: “You should try to keep them in your home,” or, “Why aren’t you willing to spend your own money to hire in-home help so they won’t have to go to a nursing home?” Etcetera, etcetera.
Sometimes relatives don’t get “ugly;” rather, they are completely disengaged. This relative says, “Well, looks like you’ve got it under control,” and the only time you ever hear their voice again is if you call their cell and it goes to voice mail. This person’s lack of involvement can do just as much damage as the arguing critic. The job of caregiving is huge, and one person should never be left to shoulder all of the responsibility alone.
So, where’s the happy medium? I recently heard a pastor say, “Momma raised seven kids; are you telling me that those seven adults can’t take care of their one elderly Momma!?” Like so many other things in life, it’s a team effort that gets the job done well.
First, it’s important to make sure that our aging loved ones do their estate planning before it’s needed; this allows them to decide who they want to handle their business. On that note, please remember it’s possible to get “too many cooks in the kitchen,” so to speak. I recommend designating one person to have the power of attorney documents, then name an alternate in case the first choice is unwilling or unavailable. When it’s necessary, the person who’s been designated can make the necessary decisions so there’ll be no stalled care while family members argue over who’s in charge.
Second, once a family member has been designated as having Power of Attorney, that one needs to listen to any valid concerns of other family members; but remember, the appointed person has the final say, and once a decision is made the family needs to support the designated caregiver.
But sometimes, even with all the pre-planning and specific designations, families become entrenched in strife and argument; disagreements can spiral out of control, and while angry family members draw their lines in the sand, it is the loved one needing care who suffers. In this case, it may be necessary to seek help from a family mediator, a professional counselor who can step in and listen without bias to both sides, helping all parties to achieve compromise and agreement. A simple internet search of “elder care mediation” can yield multiple options for your consideration. A family mediator may be able to facilitate peace, and it will cost much less than the legal fees associated with a lawsuit.
Working within a family is a beautiful, messy business. Family can be its own greatest support and toughest audience all at the same time. Remember that you’re stronger together; and while caregiving is a difficult and painful task, the job can be made a little less intense when family rallies around to help rather than criticize.