Family Conflict

Caring for Elderly Relatives: How to Handle Family Conflicts

Common Causes of Family Tensions and Disagreements

It shouldn't surprise anyone that sensitive family dynamics can be one of the most challenging aspects of caregiving for an elder, given the tremendous financial, physical, and emotional demands involved. This doesn't mean that family squabbles are inevitable. In fact, if managed well, the experience of caring for an older family member has the potential to bring relatives closer as you help this person through this final stage of life. Here's how to avoid conflicts with family members and work through them when they occur.

Typically, disagreements arise because of:

  • Roles and rivalries dating back to childhood. 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. 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 to pay for a family member's care is often a huge cause of tension. 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. 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," says Donna Schempp, program director at the Family Caregivers Alliance, a national nonprofit organization that provides information and support to caregivers.

    The primary caregiver might assume this role because he lives near the family member, is perceived to have the fewest obligations, or has the closest relationship with the person. Whatever the reasons, the situation is likely to make him resentful.

How to Avoid Family Blowups

The following steps can help you recognize and avoid some of these common land mines, so you can keep the focus where it belongs -- on your family member's care.

Hold Regular Family Meetings

As soon as the person begins to have health problems, initiate regular family meetings with your siblings and other family members who will be involved in her 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.

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 family member to his doctor's appointments, but perhaps she can handle his finances or take the lead in finding an appropriate long-term care situation. A far-flung 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.

Why Communication Is Important

Most families have taboo subjects that everyone avoids. Sometimes the topic is a sensitive one, like a drinking problem or a family tragedy, but often family members avoid speaking up because they are afraid of hurting feelings -- or simply because openness has never been part of the family culture.

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, nonconfrontational 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 family member 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. 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.

How to Resolve Family Conflicts

Seek Mediation -- Especially if You Hit Trouble Spots

A counselor or mediator can help you and your family resolve disagreements or manage particularly difficult care-giving dilemmas. Schempp, who regularly counsels siblings and other caregivers, says, "It helps families to have an outside facilitator who can offer advice and support."

Even if your family doesn't have specific disagreements, you may want to see a counselor on an occasional basis, because experts like Schempp can help you tap into options and resources that you may not be aware of. Many problems facing caregivers have no easy answers. Take, for example, your argument with your brothers about whether your dad can still drive. In a sense you're both right: He might well be too infirm to drive, but he needs his independence. An experienced counselor can help you work through dilemmas like this one and determine what's best for your family member -- and for you. To find a counselor, contact your local senior center or area agency on aging.

Be Part of the Solution

If you find yourself in conflict with another family member when caring for an elderly relative, take a step back and get some perspective. Consider your own role in the conflict, and ask yourself if you're acting out an old family role or resentment. It might help you to see a therapist for support and insight.

Make sure that you're taking care of yourself by getting regular sleep, nutritious meals, and exercise. If you're the primary caregiver, you also need to have regular breaks to avoid burnout. These steps won't make the conflict disappear, but chances are they will help you manage and resolve it in a more honest and clear-headed way.

2 months ago, said...

I am the primary caregiver for my 90 year old mother with whom I live. Also living in the house are my two minor children. I am a single parent, and the children's father has abandoned us. We get no help from him and no help from his family. I work part-time for a doctor, care for my children, and manage my son's career (he is a teen actor) and my daughter's learning disability. I also run a small business. My brother is a recovering alcoholic and cannot get a job. He has gotten into super expensive student loans and owes $500,000 on these loans for his two kids, one of whom is 30 years old and refuses to get a job or help pay back his loan. He lives with his parents. My brother leases a brand new Mercedes. He is constantly asking for money and has taken $7,500 from my dementia mother. He refuses to pay it back. He yells at me when I ask him to help in her care. He insists that he helps but then claims he is too busy looking for a job. Additionally, when I ask him about his son, who is 30, if he could help here and there, he insists that this young man, who is unemployed, is just too busy. Too busy talking to agents, producers, studio heads - but still does not have a job. Today when I told him I felt like I am taking on 98% of the burden he told me that if I continued to talk like that he would hang up on me. I told him go ahead, hang up on me. I realize I am in a dysfunctional situation. I tried calling various government agencies to see about getting professional help for an affordable rate. I can't even get any respite care. I am desperate.

4 months ago, said...

My Brother has kept my Mother away from me for 2 years saying that i just make her blood pressure go up and that i am insane, She is iin the second stages of alzhimiers Disease and i need and want to see her. I'm not insane i am bipolar and medicated and seeing a doctor monthly. Before she got bed ridden i took care of her everyday, taking her out to her favorite places, shopping and kept her from morning till 6pm, as she loved to play with my baby daughter. This is killing me, im so scared she is gonna die and i won't get to tell her how much i love her and to say goodbye! is this legal?

8 months ago, said...

Family dynamics are hard. My situation isn't as difficult as many I've read in this thread, but still my brothers and I have become estranged. I moved back to the same city as my parents ten years ago because all of us had moved away and I knew my folks would need help eventually. So now that my Dad is 92 and my Mom has Alzheimer's, I'm the one caring for both of them. My Mom went into memory care this year and my brothers have come to visit, but when they come it never seems to give me much help. It's more work because I have to arrange get-togethers and still keep up with my caregiving roles. From taking classes from the Alz Assoc. I knew that keeping the family informed is important, and I tried to do that for a while. But it was always me taking the time to write all the news and them just replying, thanks; or something like that. Again, more work for me and no support coming back for my efforts. My brother had the idea to have video chat meetings so we all signed up for Skype or something but when the meeting time would come I'd log on and sit there for ten minutes waiting for the others, who didn't show up and each time I wound up getting disgusted and closing the window in a huff. It obviously was not as much of a priority for them as it was for me. Over the past few months I've stopped communicating with my brothers at all, because it only angered me to try. They rarely take the time to call my Mom even though she needs calls more than ever, living alone in the care facility. My Dad still gets emails from them but they don't include me so I'm now isolated from my siblings. I chose it, because dealing with them was more frustrating than helpful. I know it's not a healthy response but what can I do? It's not like they are suddenly going to start being nurturing. I think the problem from their POV is, they feel guilty because they can't really do anything to help. But from my POV, they don't really try to help, they just assume they can't. Through this situation I've realized that my brothers have opinions about me, based on my past behavior. I was never big on taking responsibilities in the past and I wasn't smart with money, and I've noticed that they still think of me that way, even though I've stepped up and taken on all the responsibilities regarding my parents. To them I'll always be the little sis who is kind of a loser and who tries to skate through life. That's not who I am any more but I've felt that judgment, I believe that in their minds I'm still the same. I'd like my brothers to give me "credit" for all I do, but they really have no idea how much I do, and besides, life just doesn't work that way. Whatever. I never thought my relationship with them would deteriorate like this, but I feel okay about myself regardless, because I know I'm doing the right thing. What it comes down to is that we as caregivers (yall are my new family lol) we take care of our relatives because we care about them, and because we have the ability to. And regardless of how that goes, we know that we're doing the right thing. Along with hardship comes growth, so I know in the long run I will benefit from the situation, even if I can't tell how, from my current perspective. I am scared about how long this might go on...but I just take one day at a time. I put my life on hold for a long time and I'm just now starting to look around me and start doing a few things for myself. My brothers don't realize how much work this has been for me, how much heartbreak I've suffered, or how much it has changed me. But I do, and I suppose that's all that really matters.

9 months ago, said...

My father is 84 years old and what diagnosed with terminal cancer. My father live independently with my mother and I go to see them after work to make sure they're OK and the medications are taken. My brother and I share the responsibilities for now but somehow no matter what I do I get yell at. As a matter fact yesterday he screamed so loud to me the my dad who has the cancer and my mother who is also the caregiver. He implied that I don't get along with my sisters that don't live in the same town and that I have problems and I should take care of my problems before I come to see my parents. My parents were very surprised to hear what he was saying. Didn't make no sense. Now I am afraid to go back to my parents house when he's around. I don't know what to do I'm so scared. I love my parents and they love when I am there. ..I don't know what to do. Please help

about 1 year ago, said...

My mother-in-law lives has lived with us for 2 years. Prior to this we cared for our grandchildren. We booked a 2 week holiday but had to cancel because mother-in-law refused to stay in respite a place she loves point blank for 2 weeks. She accused me of stealing money from her. A friend of hers said to her that we have no life and haven't had for a long time. Mother-in-law said well I'm not going into a home. She told my husband she would take tablets if we put her in one. My husband said he would rather she was dead than go in one. I have level 3 kidney disease and Hashimotos thyroiditi a bad back and arthritis in my shoulder. I am tired fed up and so resentful. She came to live with us because she kept falling over and couldn't cope on her own. She has her own living room bedroom and bathroom. I told her I was not going to be her companion and that it would work out between us as she has her own space and we ours. But she has gotten more and more dependent Over the past year. She has refused all help from social services that was the last straw for me. I Feel so bad that I have no practical or emotional help for you, except to say you are a very kind considerate person. Go find some craft classes go for a coffee with a friend join a carers association. Talk to your family. You are a person you had a life try to get some of it back. Please look after your self too

about 1 year ago, said...

I took care of my Uncle (Mom's brother) who had Alzheimer's approx 4 years. I have also taken care of my Grandfather many years ago for two years (Mom's Dad). And my husband when he was sick also 2 years. My uncle made me this executor, power of attorney, etc. When he moved in with me before he dies I asked my Mom to get all of the items from the house (It was the family farm) and most of the stuff was given to her and her sister when my Grandma died. My sister who Mom lives with said no she was coming on vacation and not going to move furniture. There were 11 people who were in the will that I knew I would have problems later. This would have been a huge load off of my mind, They decided I was just being bossy so they wouldn't so it. My Brother who was offered the farm by my Uncle for the assessed value bought the house before the Uncle died because I needed the money for his care. He became combative so I needed help with his care. Brother signed a contract with me when my uncle died stating that I had 1 year property rights. This was just so I could get the items out of the house before they moved in. Well they took almost every thing out of the house and placed it the barn. (They were not even moving here for another year). They changed the locks on the doors so I had no access to the house. And expected me to go through a young cousin if I needed anything. This cousin and I never did get along very well. Finally after my brother fighting me with almost every thing I was trying to do, please remember that their were 11 other people I had to make happy concerning the will. Even though I had tried real hard to keep my brother happy. We not only got in a big fight my Mom and two sisters decided to take his side and not only didn't care about my side they called me the bad guy in all of this. And my sister called me a thief. Because she thought the stuff in my garage had belonged on the farm. When she found out she was wrong I never even got a sorry out of her. It's been 4 years a my brother has not spoken to me. He now lives in my neighborhood and I feel like I have lost most of my family who I was always close to. I don't understand how they can all turn on me when I feel like I have done so much for this family. My Mom and sisters have moved on from this but it is still killing me inside. I am trying to sell my home so that I can get a way from my brother. I have lived here for 15 years. I hate living here now, this is the place that I loved so much I always thought I would die here. There is not a day that goes by that I don't cry over this. I can't go out to see my friends because they took over that spot also. What do I do to get over this???

over 1 year ago, said...

Hi, my name is Dawn, I am 51 years old, My father died when I was 19,and my mother remarried to another man a couple of years later. she was only 44. He was 10 yrs older than her. They both had 28 yrs together. During those years my mother consintrated on her new husband. she wasn't in my life much at all. I was a new wife at 21 and mother. she was never there for me or my children. Now that her 2nd husband has died. She is 73 yrs old still very healthy and independent. but since he died she has now wanted to become apart of my life much more and has become very needy and constintly says she is lonely.She is a good person and has alot of friends and she even teaches piano to students for extra income. I love my mother, but I am very resentful of the way she makes me feel. I work full time my 2 children just married I am a new grandmother, and want to spend time with them. She refuses to get out in the winter, So on my only days off I am exspected to bring her groceries and visit. every weekend.She has been giving my husband and I guilt trips of moving in with her.She has a huge property to maintain. and She refuses to down size. So my husband is exspected to mow several acres and maintain a old apple orchard of 180 trees that her husband did for his retirement.and she refuses to cut down, and he told her too before he died because he knew how much work it was. I feel this is totally unfair to my husband - he has since been force to retire due to a total knee replacement that never healed properly. my mother had to mow herself last year which she let us know how no difficult it was for her .I feel as if she uses us, and plans our weekends to suit her needs and chores around her home. What about my home and yard which we have not much time to enjoy or work on. I pray and pray, I love my mother but I haven't been acknowledged in her life for 28 yrs. So I don't feel close to her at all. I pretend and hold in my resentment as not to upset her. Because I do believe she deserves respect from me.She has told me over and over, how her 50 and 60's were the best years of her life.I wish I could say the same. My mother has several more years ahead of her for which I'm glad. Her mother lived into her 90's. I guess there are no good answers,and I guess what I'm asking is am I being selfish ? am I wrong in my thinking,there are so many people I see who it doesn't seem to bother them doing for their parents. I feel as if I am giving up my time and life. The time I feel I should be enjoying with my husband, and grandchildren. Just because she was too into her own life with her husband she never watched or did anything with her only 2 grandchildren. I always said even as a teenager, I would rather be my mothers friend then child, because she treats her friends like gold,but now that she needs me more shes been trying to be closer to me, and I just can't deal with it. And I'm not giving up my home and life for her, why should I , and she actually does'nt need me too yet. She totally capable health wise. Honestly I feel totally guilt ridden thinking this way and my only brother lives states away and refuses to help.

over 1 year ago, said...

So, family meetings, keep your cool, ask for it. My husband and I are the primary caregivers for his 90 & 91 year old parents. They love ve with us now. The advice you give is good, but what do you do when their other three children won't even return a phone call let alone help. They do not call their parents regularly, or visit them. If fact they seem intent on treating their brother and I as hired help. To insignificant to notice. Aside from this being insulting, it harms their parents. Both parents know they are being ignored, yet are so starved for contact with the rest of their children they will overlook bad behavior for the occasional hello. I am to the point that I truely wish they would stop all contact. I know that is uncharitable, and hurtful to my mother and father-in-law, but I am tired of the roller coaster ride .

over 1 year ago, said...

My dad is 92 and suffers from Alzheimer's. Recently he has accused me of doing things over the years I never did and have no idea what he's talking about. It seems like he hates me now and I'm devastated. I don't know wheat her to leave him alone or tell him I love him. At which he laughs. I feel he doesn't want to see me anymore and its tearing me up.

over 1 year ago, said...

Hello. I am currently the sole caregiver do everything. My sister thinks because i live with no rent etc she feels no obligations to help except sundays takes them to lunch. Mom constantly compains about my sis s ignorance of my dads alzhymers and moms dialysis 3 times a week. I do all appointments. Meds. Shopping. She feels its. My responsibility. I am slowly withdrawing from communication with her. I asked her for support to get help or more help from her . She totally ignorned me and acts like I never talked to her. I think its more important why she doesnt talk than the subject of help. Thanks Bob Lombardi

over 1 year ago, said...

I sometimes feel I could scream at THEFAMILY. I,m Mam's Carer. The Family are living in denial. I wish they would get real. Your writing, advice, is interesting but when you are dealing with people who look for fault and score cheap points, we keep them at a distance. Their troublemaking is unwanted. I listen to the GPs etc. and my elderly mother.